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The epic battle of 2014: how it turned Indian politics

india Updated: May 16, 2014 00:48 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times

You may like or dislike the outcome, you may be young or old, you may have voted or chosen to abstain, but there is remarkable consensus around these polls: India has never seen an electoral battle like 2014. What the 16th Lok Sabha elections have done is change the rules of how polls are fought.

For one, there was one central figure in the election: Narendra Modi. From Jammu to Kanyakumari, from Nagaland to Gujarat, the BJP gambled on turning this poll into a presidential one. A voter was not electing his MP as much as his PM.

Jawaharlal Nehru in the 50s, Indira Gandhi in the 60s and 70s, and to some extent, Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the 90s did dominate the poll landscape. But never has an entire poll, through this diverse land, across geographies and communities, focused so extensively on a single individual.

And it was through innovative mediums that this message of the man in the reckoning was projected. The electronic media has been a feature – to varying degrees – in the past few elections. But there is now an unprecedented proliferation, with over 400 news channels. There was relentless live coverage of rallies, often provided by parties themselves; TV debates through the day entrenched the cast of characters in the popular consciousness.

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But the real story was the expansion of the way political communication took place, with the use of new technology. It was not just TV and print, but 2014 was marked by the debut of social media. Leaders took to Twitter and Facebook, communicating directly, cutting out intermediaries like the traditional media platforms.

Social media was also used to track potential supporters in constituencies. Through 3D and Hologram, Modi was present in multiple locations virtually, giving a sense of novelty to audiences across the country and making them a part of his campaign. The party that communicated better, more innovatively, succeeded. All of this also made it arguably the most expensive election ever in India's history.

But while leadership and communication were distinct features, the nature of the discourse was disappointing. Personal attacks and acrimony marked the campaign; it often descended to rhetoric which polarised communities on religious and caste lines; and substantive issues took a back-seat. The development, governance, empowerment, and prosperity dream was sold by all parties in the fray. But rarely were these terms defined. Specific roadmaps about how public policy choices would be made were given a miss.

And finally, this election will also be remembered for the way it altered traditional categories of identity. Social cleavages remain critical, but the consolidation of entire caste and religious groups is a myth. With education, urbanisation, a commonality in material aspirations, and upward mobility, individual agency of voters is becoming more important.

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Ideological battles will have to be redefined if actors have to stay relevant. The Indian polity will now have to catch up with changes in Indian society.