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The BJP juggernaut is in high gear | Opinion

A presidential-style politics has been deliberately and artfully imposed on a 543-member Lok Sabha to the point where all other concerns and traditional caste and community alignments are sought to be subsumed under the constant refrain of “muscular nationalism” and “mazboot neta”.

columns Updated: May 10, 2019 08:49 IST
lok sabha elections 2019,BJP,UPA
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah in Varanasi, April 26, 2019(PTI)

As the 2019 election marathon enters the final stretch, there is one question being repeatedly asked: Will the 2019 verdict throw up a hung Parliament or another Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) majority government like in 2014? In other words, could a TsuNamo strike twice?

On the face of it, this would seem highly unlikely. There are, after all, major differences between 2014 and 2019. First, the BJP was the challenger and could astutely capitalise on the spiralling anti-incumbency against the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance 2 (UPA 2) government. Second, having swept several states of north and western India, even the loss of a single seat here would represent a decline. Third, and crucially, the Opposition has been a little bit more adept at striking alliances this time, with the Akhilesh Yadav (Samajwadi Party)-Mayawati (Bahujan Samaj Party) gatbandhan (alliance) in Uttar Pradesh (UP), providing the most striking example of a more unified opposition in India’s most populous state.

And yet, alliance arithmetic cannot be oblivious to electoral chemistry. This is a key difference between 2014 and now. Then, the BJP would have probably formed a government even if Modi was not its prime ministerial choice, given the extent of public rage against the UPA 2 regime. The man from Gujarat gave the party a final push with his aggressive campaign.

But in 2019, it is increasingly apparent that the BJP’s election prospects revolve solely around an individual. It is this personality-centric campaign built around the larger than life image of Modi, which is the dominant theme, aided by a 24x7 ever-obliging media. A presidential-style politics has been deliberately and artfully imposed on a 543-member Lok Sabha to the point where all other concerns and traditional caste and community alignments are sought to be subsumed under the constant refrain of “muscular nationalism” and “mazboot neta” (strong leader). This cult is in many ways the product of a world in which social media, WhatsApp messages and mainstream media are treating politics as a reality TV spectacle in which there is only one Big Boss.

To give an example. I am sitting at a chai stall in Phulpur in eastern UP with 22-year-old Ajay Yadav. A commerce graduate, he has been trying, and failing, to find a job for almost a year now. He admits to feeling disillusioned with the Modi government’s promises on job creation but says he will vote for Modi. Why, I ask. “Sir, unhone toh Pakistan ko sabak sikhaya hai, (Sir, he has taught Pakistan a lesson.) ” he says.But how will “teaching Pakistan a lesson” get him a job, I persist. “Woh sab theek hai sir, par pehle desh ka sochna hai, (All that is fine, sir... first we have to think about the country.),” he responds. Ajay admits to being part of a WhatsApp group called Hum Desh-Bhakt from where he claims to get all the news, including reports of 500 terrorists killed in Balakot. When I scan the messages on the group, the anti-Muslim prejudice is obvious.

Switch to Vinod Mandal, an auto driver living in Delhi’s sprawling Gita Colony slum. He complains of irregular water supply and crumbling infrastructure. An Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) voter in 2015, he says he will vote for Modi this time and then shows off a video on his mobile phone with the PM dressed up as an all-conquering Bahubali and a catch line: “Modi hai to mumkin hai (With Modi everything is doable)”. I ask him about Rahul Gandhi, the Congress and the Nyay scheme. He stares at me blankly and then blurts out, “Congress ko 70 saal main bahut chance diya sir, Modi ji ko aur paanch saal try karte hai (The Congress got several chances in the last 70 years. Let’s try Modi for another five years).”

In a 90 crore-plus electorate, Akshay and Vinod are just two voices. The perils of making instant judgements based on small sample sizes in a country as vast and diverse as India cannot be exaggerated. But they offer a glimpse of a country where minds are being shaped by a “one nation, one leader” narrative, where a crafty political machine has blurred distinctions between myth and reality, where incendiary communal rhetoric coexists with welfare schemes like the Ujjwala Yojana and Ayushman Bharat, where the humdrum of daily existence is lifted by the well-spun dream of a new India and a strong leader.

Whether this is enough to win the BJP a simple majority in 2019 is uncertain: The party remains weak south of the Vindhyas (except in Karnataka); the UP gatbandhan is still intact; sitting MPs are facing local antagonisms; and for all the talk of a massive vote swing in Bengal and Odisha, regional satraps like Trinamool Congress’s Mamata Banerjee and Biju Janata Dal’s Naveen Patnaik remain formidable adversaries,. But the drumbeat of the Modi juggernaut has created a high decibel echo chamber where the voter is being almost pushed into believing that “aayega toh Modi hi” (Modi will come). Sometimes, the perception of invincibility leads to a seeming inevitability of the result.

Post-script: Having travelled through almost 12 states in the past two months, the one state where I sensed the least enthusiastic “Modi, Modi” chant was Punjab. That a border state should be less concerned about national security and Pakistan than the Hindi heartland is ironical and instructive: As a businessman in Amritsar’s famous Giani tea stall tells me, “We are the ones in the firing line, so we want peace and border trade, not war and bombs!”

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

First Published: May 10, 2019 07:29 IST