Before vote count, a deep dive into 2019 poll campaign and how it unfolded
The zealous cow protection drive, crackdown on slaughterhouses, and lynching of Muslims on the mere suspicion that they possessed beef had broken the symbiotic relationship between Hindus and MuslimsUpdated: May 22, 2019 12:25 IST
In December 2018, in a bazaar in Uttar Pradesh’s Pratapgarh, a Thakur villager was angry. He blamed the Narendra Modi government for betraying its voters. The reason: the government had restored provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act that had been diluted by the Supreme Court, after nationwide Dalit protests. It was three weeks after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had suffered a setback in the assembly polls of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. “In 2019, we will teach them the same lesson,” said the Thakur villager.
But upper castes were not the only ones upset. So were the farmers, who across castes, had voted for the BJP in large numbers in both 2014 (general election) and 2017 (UP assembly election). They blamed the Yogi Adityanath state government for what came to be known as the stray cattle menace. The zealous cow protection drive, crackdown on slaughterhouses, and lynching of Muslims on the mere suspicion that they possessed beef had broken the symbiotic relationship between Hindus and Muslims. There was now no way to dispose off unproductive cattle. They were left out in the open; and farmers then had to stay up all night to protect farms from destruction. In other states, they were upset by low incomes.
It was in this climate that the campaign for the 2019 elections began. A jubilant Congress, riding high on its assembly poll successes; a grand alliance of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in UP possessing a formidable caste arithmetic; and a BJP that suddenly appeared to be vulnerable.
Based on ground feedback, the BJP first focused on addressing the discontent. By introducing a constitutional amendment for the reservation for economically weaker sections — which would end up benefiting upper castes — it hoped to neutralise the anger of its core voter. And by announcing a direct income assistance of Rs 6,000 for farmers in its last budget, it hoped to tackle agrarian distress and rural anger — partly if not wholly.
The BJP was then ready with its broad political message for the elections. But as leaders admitted in private conversations, an ‘emotional’ element was missing. Then the February 14 Pulwama terror attack that killed 40 soldiers happened. From the very next day, Modi spoke of how he had given a free hand to the security forces. He raised expectations. And with the Balakot strikes, India said it had gone deep into Pakistani territory to hit terror camps. Pakistan hit back the next day and captured an Air Force pilot, but Islamabad soon released him. India claimed this was because of sustained diplomatic pressure. The campaign thrust now changed. The BJP narrowed down on its key themes for the polls. It began with nationalism and how Modi led a strong government that could give Pakistan a robust response, in comparison to all the ‘weak’ governments of the past. This was supplemented with claims of benefits to the poor — housing, toilets, gas cylinders, rural electrification. The political message revolved around how, on one hand, there was a clear leader, Modi, and how on the other, there was a messy coalition with no leader and parties that had fought against each other for much of recent history. And finally, this was laced with a strong anti-corruption message, with Modi leading the charge.
As the campaign progressed, the BJP’s campaign became more bitter and personal, particularly against the Nehru-Gandhi family. It also assumed a strong majoritarian tone, with the PM and party chief Amit Shah mocking Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s choice of Wayanad (his second seat in Kerala apart from Amethi in UP) because it was ‘minority dominated’. This was most stark when Pragya Thakur — a terror accused — was given the ticket for Bhopal. In West Bengal, the Citizenship Amendment Bill was used, and a strong sense of Hindu victimhood was encouraged.
But at the core of the campaign was the persona of Modi. It was like he was fighting from all the constituencies himself. And with this image, the BJP apparatus pushed all messages dear to them.
The Congress began the year confident that it had found the recipe to stop the Modi juggernaut. Two issues — the party felt — had resonated deeply in the assembly polls: agrarian distress and unemployment. A few days before the budget, Rahul Gandhi announced in Chhattisgarh that the Congress, if elected to power, would provide a basic minimum income to the poorest Indians. Over the next few weeks, this policy announcement was fleshed out. And the party finally announced Nyay — a promise of providing Rs 72,000 to 20% of India’s poorest families. The plan was hailed as a possible game changer. To address unemployment, the Congress also promised it would fill over two million government posts within a year, create an additional million government jobs, and provide encouragement to start-ups.
The Congress’s other campaign message revolved around the Rafale jet deal — and the slogan ‘Chowkidar Chor hai’, in a direct attack on the prime minister. Gandhi also critiqued the PM for encouraging crony capitalism and destroying institutions.
The Congress, however, carefully stayed away from the secularism-communalism debate for the fear of being labelled ‘anti-Hindu’. It initially also kept away from the ‘nationalism’ issue for fear of being portrayed as anti-national or pro-Pakistan, but eventually put out former prime minister Manmohan Singh who claimed that his government had conducted multiple surgical strikes too. The message however came too late in the campaign to have any impact.
In terms of tactics, the party focused on alliances in key states — Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra — but did not strike alliances in UP, Delhi, Bengal and Haryana. It also decided that if it could convert the election into 543 local elections, or 29 state elections, rather than one national election, it had a better chance of defeating the BJP. The party also brought in Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as general secretary in charge of eastern UP— this was long considered to be the Congress’s ultimate weapon. Priyanka’s entry enthused cadres but whether it would translate into votes and seats in this election remains to be seen.
As Modi dominated media space, Gandhi broadened his media outreach in the final phases of the campaign — by expanding beyond the print media and giving interviews to television and digital platforms. But he refused to be drawn into a direct fight with Modi on the question of leadership, by suggesting that only the people would decide the PM on May 23.
Regional parties ran their own campaigns. The states of UP and West Bengal stood out in this regard. Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav focused on quietly getting their organisations to work together, did their first rally in Saharanpur’s Deoband only days before the first phase of polls, and made symbolic appearances together to show to their voters that past acrimony was now forgotten. Mamata Banerjee ran a strong — but many argue semi-violent - campaign in West Bengal taking on Modi and Shah’s allegations on how her government victimised Hindus and ‘appeased’ Muslims.
As campaign ends, it is clear that all parties invested tremendous energy — it also got extremely ugly and vicious at times — in this election. It is now time to hear the verdict of the Indian electorate.
First Published: May 22, 2019 04:44 IST