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Opinion | Is the 2019 poll an encore of 2004 India Shining?

Yes and No. The chemistry remains with Brand Modi, and only a genuinely united opposition can reclaim the arithmetic advantage

columns Updated: Apr 12, 2019 09:17 IST
NDA,2019 Parliamentary Elections
While Modi remains India’s (Sakib Ali /Hindustan Times)

A cheery optimism is a seasoned politician’s constant companion. Which is why, as every survey shows the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is poised to return to power, opposition politicians have been reminding one and all of what happened in 2004 when all poll predictions went horribly wrong and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) bested the Vajpayee government. Is Modi Shining 2019 going to be a sequel to the India Shining of 2004, an illusory bubble that is about to burst? My answer: yes and no.

Yes, much like in 2004, when there was an attempt to build a personality cult around Vajpayee, there is an even more relentless effort on to cast Modi as a larger than life leader. From biopics to web series, from NaMo TV to the NaMo app, from well-choreographed interviews to live speeches, Brand Modi is everywhere.

And yet, to liken the 2019 Modi Shining marketing blitz to the fallibilities of the 2004 India Shining campaign is misleading. At the outset, the notion that Vajpayee lost power because the hype around his government didn’t match the reality is a misreading of the 2004 mandate. Vajpayee primarily lost power because his allies in the south — the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) — were nearly wiped out. He lost ground in the populous states of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar too, partly because, after the 2002 Gujarat riots, there was a strong caste-community consolidation against his government, but also because the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) organisation in these states was atrophying. Vajpayee’s personal popularity was intact even as his party was in retreat.

That is not the case in 2019. While Modi remains India’s pre-eminent political leader by some distance, the BJP, too, is now the principle pole of Indian politics. While 15 years ago, the BJP was in power in barely half a dozen states, today it controls more than 16 state governments. In 2004, the BJP’s geographical limitations were apparent; today, the party is venturing into greenfield areas in the east and northeast. Moreover, while the BJP under Vajpayee was a party that worked within its constitutional limits, the BJP under the Modi-Amit Shah duo is a seemingly inexhaustible machine that will stop at nothing to demolish its rivals.

By contrast, the Congress of today is much weaker than the party it was then. The two states of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, which were key to the revival of the Congress, are a pointer to the crisis of the grand old party. In a divided Andhra, the Congress is now a marginal player. In Maharashtra, the steady stream of Congress leaders defecting to the BJP reflects the ground reality of the saffron party having emerged as the premier player in the Congress’s original fortress.

The other major difference between 2004 and 2019 lies in the social demographics of the country. Then, the Indian middle class was less dominant than it is today, and the rural-urban divide remained stark. In the decade after 2004, the Indian middle class exploded, and doubled in size to more than 600 million. The vaulting aspirations of this class were fuelled by a consumer boom, best exemplified by the dramatic mobile revolution. With more than 400 million smartphones, over 250 million WhatsApp users, nearly 300 million Facebook accounts, India is literally a nation on the move. This communication revolution — don’t forget that the number of 24x7 news channels have more than quadrupled in this period to more than 400 — has slowly bridged the traditional India-Bharat divide and created a more interconnected universe where a sharp political message is carried in real time to millions of potential voters.

It is this resurgent, new middle class which is now driving the BJP’s Moditva juggernaut, powered by a heady mix of post-Balakot muscular nationalism, an ugly religious majoritarianism and rising economic ambitions. For this class, the Rahul Gandhi narrative of Nyay through a minimum income guarantee (MIG) scheme has less resonance: a majority of them earn more than the Rs 12,000 a month limit. While the MIG at least gives the Congress a talking point, its competitive edge is partly neutralised by the BJP’s steady penetration into poorer neighbourhoods through its own cash transfer measures.

In this monopolistic BJP political milieu, the only real hope for the fragmented opposition lies, even at this late stage, in its ability to strike strategic alliances in key battleground states such as UP. The chemistry remains with Brand Modi; only a genuinely united opposition can reclaim the advantage in arithmetic.

Post-script: On a recent trip to Vidarbha, I struck up a conversation with orange farmers in Nagpur district. They had only vaguely heard of Balakot, were unaware of the Nyay slogan but were instead angry with dwindling prices for their produce. “All governments are the same, they do nothing for the farmer,” was their lament. So, who will you vote for, I asked. “Modiji hee too hai, aur kisko den?” (Modi is the only option. Who else should we vote?) was their response. The opposition now has six weeks to convince the disillusioned farmer that there may be real alternatives to the BJP’s mascot.

Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Apr 11, 2019 20:39 IST