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Polls on, but Modi still seeking a grand theme

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By Bharat Bhushan

As voters in 20 states prepare to cast their ballots for 91 LokSabha seats in the first of seven phases of the general election on April 11, Prime Minister NarendraModi’s desperation is evident. In this make or break election, he is virtually begging for votes in the name of the Balakot airstrike and the Pulwama martyrs. It is as if the Indian Air Force fighter pilots and the Central Reserve Police Force martyrs were contesting the election on his behalf.


Appealing to an estimated 15 million first-time voters, he said in Aurangabad: “When you earn your first salary usually you don’t keep it for yourself. You want to dedicate it to your mother or sister. Similarly, you can dedicate your vote for the Balakot airstrike, for the Pulwama attack victims… Will you dedicate your vote to the brave men who conducted the Balakot strikes, to the CRPF men who lost their lives in the Pulwama attack?” Prime Minister Modi’s attempt toleverage the death and bravery of the security forces is nothing short of scandalous.

In 2014, he had mesmerised voters with a promise of delivering inclusive growth, corruption-free governance, employment for youth, and the prospect of doubling the income of farmers. Five years later, people have realised that the trailer was better than the film.

Prime Minister Modi could not deliver on any of his economic promises. Instead, his maverick policies such a demonetisation destroyed jobs and small businesses. Markets turned chaotic with the hastily-introduced Goods and Services Tax, which was so badly framed that it had to be modified a record 376 times within 10 months of its inception.

The government’s claims of muscularity on security issues were punctured by spectacular terrorist attacks in Pathankot, Uri and Pulwama. A two-month-long standoff with China nearly threatened to turn ugly. Even the prospect of a real war with Pakistan has had to be dusted and brought out once more, barely weeks before polling.

Prime Minister Modi is, therefore, not seeking re-election on the specificities of his governance record. Doing so risks arousing an anti-incumbency sentiment that will be difficult to counter.

He has, however, failed to find a single unifying re-election theme. Despite cranking up the Pulwama terrorist attack and India’s response, the results of the Balakot bombing have become more and more unconvincing. The attempt at Hindu-Muslim polarisation, a card of last resort, has also not worked so far on the ground.

It is back, therefore, to the Prime Minister invoking the spectre of a corrupt Opposition. Central investigative agencies like the income-tax department, the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation are being used to underline the alleged corruption of his many challengers. Raids by these agencies are then immediately taken as “proof” of corruption by Prime Minister Modi in his election speeches and finance ministerArunJaitley in his daily blogs to frighten the voters into falling in line.

Both Prime Minister Modi and finance minister Jaitley named UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and her onetime top aide, senior Congress leader Ahmad Patel, as alleged recipients of bribes in the AgustaWestland helicopter deal, although the main accused Christian Michael went to court to claim that he had not named anybody in his statements. These accusations made in the Enforcement Directorate’s chargesheet were leaked to the “friendly” media even before filing it in court.

Usually the Central investigation agencies tone down their activism in election season. This time around, however, Opposition politicians and their associates are fair game from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh to Madhya Pradesh. Even before the investigations are completed, accusations are hurled. The Prime Minister had no qualms about stooping low to refer to MP chief minister Kamal Nath as “BhrishtaNath” or “Lord of Corruption”! Madhya Pradesh is where the BJP is desperate to retain its 2014 tally of 27 out of 29 LokSabha seats.

If corruption charges do not create sufficient alienation from the Congress and the Opposition, the Prime Minister is also buying insurance by tarnishing them as anti-Hindu, pro-Pakistan and pro-Muslim. His campaign speeches at Wardha, Nanded and Saharanpur show the extent he is willing to go to communally polarise the voters. In western Uttar Pradesh he made egregious references to the Muzaffarpur and Shaharanpur riots to create a communal rift within the alliance of castes and communities formed by the Opposition to challenge him.

Prime Minister Modi’s last resort is to project the elections as a referendum about himself. Defence minister NirmalaSitaraman told voters in Gujarat not to bother about who their local candidate was but vote for Prime Minister Modi. Mr Modi himself told voters in Odisha and Maharashtra that if they pressed the button against the lotus symbol, the vote would go directly to him. Such a campaign makes the party, the local candidate and the government’s record completely irrelevant.

However much they might fly up and down the country in chartered aircraft, other campaigners like party president Amit Shah or Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath are only there as supporting cast in Mr Modi’s mega campaign act. Yet, it might be useful to remember that although Yogi Adityanath has the persona to communalise voters, the party lost wherever he addressed public meetings during the November 2018 state Assembly elections.

The rest of the BJP’s well-known campaigners have been benched or retired. Former chief ministers of the party who have a national image, such as Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raman Singh and VasundharaRaje, are not being used in the party’s campaign even in the states that they ruled.

Others like veterans Lal Krishna Advani, MuraliManohar Joshi and Kalraj Mishra have been retired unceremoniously. They could have been used for campaigning for the party, but then they would have taken the focus away from Mr Modi’s persona, whose irreplaceability has to be the necessary election theme.

Since nothing else seems to have caught the imagination of the voters, the BJP has made this general election largely about Mr Modi himself, its larger than life mascot. Hence the unimaginative slogan — “Phirekbaar, Modi Sarkar (Modi government once again)”.