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The 2019 election: Lack of a national alternative means advantage Modi

Well beyond all the usual reasons offered by pundits for why the BJP may do well — the Balakot strike, nationalism, hindutva, machismo, the party’s deep pockets, polarisation — there is one bigger reason: the absence of a clear national leader to take Modi on

columns Updated: May 18, 2019 10:42 IST
Barkhka Dutt
Barkhka Dutt
This election tells me that India is starved for new leaders. While Modi retains popularity, most voters would enjoy a genuinely competitive leadership battle
This election tells me that India is starved for new leaders. While Modi retains popularity, most voters would enjoy a genuinely competitive leadership battle(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)
         

I call this election the Aur kaun hai? (Who else is there?) election. In what has otherwise been a confounding, unpredictable poll in many ways, one distinct narrative emerged in my travels across the Hindi heartland. People would concede mistakes made by Narendra Modi and list their disappointments with him. Then they would invariably trail off at the end of their sentence with a counter question to me: “Lekin aur kaun hai (But who else is there?)

I have come to describe this as the Indian voters post-romance phase with Modi. No longer is there euphoric happiness or the excitement of an adrenaline rush. The hormonal highs have made way for a placid, sometimes annoying, often disappointing equation. But there is still intellectual affinity, emotional familiarity, loyalty, perceived stability and, above all, the absence of any viable option.

This election tells me that India is starved for new leaders. While Modi retains his popularity, most voters would have enjoyed a genuinely competitive leadership battle. They wouldn’t even mind Modi’s power being restrained and brought down a notch or two. A veterinarian I met in eastern Uttar Pradesh is voting for Modi but lamented the lack of alternatives. He may have changed his preference, he said, if there were other leaders who appeared credible and strong. He wanted the ahankar ( arrogance) of Modi to be contained by a numerical tally of 200-odd seats. A young engineer from Ghazipur was unimpressed by demonetisation, mildly embarrassed by the “cloudy radar” gaffe and worried about the jobs crisis. His vote will still go to Modi because of what he calls the absence of a national alternative.

Modi’s other great success in this campaign has been to create a convenient separation between him and his colleagues. Across Uttar Pradesh, I found great disenchantment with chief minister, Yogi Adityanath. Many Modi voters are furious with Adityanath. Whether it’s the issue of stray cattle destroying farm fields, his promotion of what they call thakurvaad(translate)or a general disgust with the state of governance, more people than I can count told me that Modi would get their vote for the Lok Sabha and Akhilesh Yadav is their choice for the Vidhan Sabha.

But the curious thing is that Modi’s reputation appeared unsullied by Adityanath’s unpopularity. This just reconfirms the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s identity as the party of Modi. Almost no other individual is seen as relevant to how voters perceive the party.

This Americanisation of India’s parliamentary democracy into a de facto presidential campaign is precisely what the BJP wants.

Yes, complex caste arithmetic, in particular of the Mayawati-Akhilesh Yadav gathbandhan (alliance) may yet prove to be the mundane match for the personality-driven domination the BJP seeks. And in my estimation, in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Pary(SP)-Bahujan Samaj Party(BSP) alliance is likely to, at the very least, halve the BJP’s tally. So personality politics has some limits.

But there is also no denying that Modi’s BJP is facing its toughest challenge from regional satraps who are not intimidated by him and who are seen by people in their state as grounded, serious, unafraid and willing to fight as if their lives depend on it. If Modi does not become the prime minister again, it will be in large part due to the ferocity and staying power of the following leaders: Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav and, to some extent, K Chandrasekar Rao, Jagan Reddy and MK Stalin.

If any of these leaders had a national footprint, the talking points of this election might have been very different. At the moment, for all their energy, they are confined by their geographies. If one of them were to build both a cadre and a profile outside of their regional identity, more people may feel there are options other than Modi.

In all this, there are also home truths for the Congress to digest. Rahul Gandhi may be much more assertive, confident and even relaxed as a politician today than he was five years ago and his sister, Priyanka, may be providing supplementary charisma. But at least at this point the party is not figuring in major heartland conversations. This is partly because the centrepiece of the Congress campaign was not a slogan; it was an economic policy: Nyay. The minimum income guarantee scheme may have even worked as an antidote to personality politics had it been rolled out one year ago and marketed and amplified on the ground, where it counts. Instead, it was brought in far too late and in too complex a manner to be accessible or even known.

Well beyond all the usual reasons offered by pundits for why the BJP may do well — the Balakot strike, nationalism, Hindutva, machismo, the party’s deep pockets, polarisation — there is one bigger reason: the absence of a clear national leader to take Modi on.

That’s why this, 2019, may well be defined by Aur kaun (Who else?)

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

First Published: May 17, 2019 18:05 IST

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