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The contours of contest ahead

By Mahesh Rangarajan

This summer will see a carnival of democracy in the general election. Much has changed in just five years. The elan of Narendra Modi’s party is more muted this time. Last weekend, key opponents, the Samajwadi Party and the BahujanSamaj Party, joined forces in Uttar Pradesh, making the contest real and not a walkover. The Index of Opposition Unity cannot predict outcomes but no one can afford to ignore it.

The Congress’s victories in the Assembly elections in three north Indian States have given it a shot in the arm. Equally important, the older party is firming up alliances in the southern States. The 131 Lok Sabha seats in five States (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana) and two Union Territories (Lakshadweep and Puducherry) have been critical to it in times of trouble.


The Telangana poll outcome was sobering for both the large national parties. Regional nationalism is not new to Indian politics: Jammu and Kashmir and Tamil Nadu were precursors. Regional formations have long governed West Bengal, Odisha and now Telangana. They may well hold the keys to power in New Delhi.

In 2014, it was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that led in securing allies. Between then and now, BJP president Amit Shah has helped expand its footprint. Not only does it have more MLAs than the Congress, but its cadre fights every election like there is no tomorrow.

The challenge lies elsewhere. The Congress may have lost in 2014 and come down to a historic low of less than one in five votes cast. Yet, only a decade age, in May 2009, the roles had been in reverse. It was Congress that had then polled 29% and the BJP just 19% of the popular vote.

This time is different. It is 1971 that will be the textbook case for the ruling party. When the Grand Alliance said it would oust Indira Gandhi, she replied she wished to banish poverty. She won hands down.

Mrs. Gandhi did not have to contend with a powerful Dalit-led formation in the Ganga valley which commands 20% of the vote. Many of today’s regional parties were yet to be formed. She captured the public imagination. It was a gamble and she won hands down. Mr. Modi too will fight to the last voter. He will try to be the issue. He has sounded the tocsin against dynasty, caste and corruption. Hence the record in getting visible benefits to the individual and the family. The gas cylinder, the light bulb, that rural road: each will, he hopes, add to his appeal.

History has another instance too. The 2004 general election was held early. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was confident that ‘India was Shining’. The dream came apart on counting day. Rather than a unified Opposition (for there was none in the all-important State of Uttar Pradesh), ground-level discontent denied the ruling alliance another chance.

And yet, there is the cloud of the horizon. Even in 2004, the Congress was only a whisker ahead of the BJP — just seven seats more in the Lok Sabha. The Congress had 145 seats to the BJP’s 138. The key was on the ground, where the mood had shifted. The economic upturn began in 2003, but voters did not see gains early enough for the ruling bloc to reap an electoral harvest.

In 2014, the challenger drew on the tiredness with a decade of a Congress-led government and promised a fresh start. Runaway inflation and the spectre of corruption undercut the appeal of the Congress. This time the issues have changed. It is the squeeze on farm incomes and rural debt that are the key poll planks. Similarly, the issue of jobs is more pressing than ever. Cultivators across all strata and young people seeking productive employment want answers.

Two States are key. Maharashtra, a State critical in the histories of both the Congress and the BJP, is not only seeing a coming together of Opposition forces; it is undergoing drought and rural distress. Ominously, key farmer-led allies have walked across. Uttar Pradesh, a bastion of the BJP, has rival Dalit- and Mandal-led parties coalesce for the first time in a quarter century. Both States have something in common. In both, sugarcane cultivation is a determinant of electoral fortunes.

Cane (not caste) and jobs (not community slogans) may hold the key. Ganna and Naukri, not reservations or the emotive Mandir issue. What matters more: bread or identity? Even when both count what takes precedence?

Government policy has had a key role in this denouement. By according priority to consumers in cities (who want low prices for cereals, oil seeds and pulses), the government did not have to pay heed to rural residents who need to earn more. The latter, as producers, are larger in number and percentage than in any other democracy.

India still lives and votes in its villages. Under Mr. Shah, the cadre, organisation and outreach have made the BJP a vastly larger party than any other. But economic policies can strain such organisational gains.

Democracy is about more than development. In a polity where people can throw their rulers out, it is centrally about politics. Since 1999, there has been a bi-nodal system, and the choice is not simply between Mr. Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi.
We have effectively a one-party government with a firm hand on the wheel (but with the danger of an over-centralisation of power).

Against this, is ranged a looser coalition in which regional forces and rural interests have more play. Needless to add, the latter will be rockier, more contentious and tough to manage in a coherent fashion.

The Modi government is driven by ideology and not pragmatism on a range of issues. This is the first ever BJP government with a view of culture, history and politics that seeks to remake history as much as the future. Is this the party’s agenda or the country’s? This is a question in the background: if the Ram temple issue comes to the fore, it will be a major choice for the voter.

The pluralism and Hindutva debate have another dimension more so than ever, namely the federal question. Across the Northeast (including Sikkim), far more important to the country than its 25 Lok Sabha seats indicate, the idea of citizenship is at variance with the new Citizenship Bill passed by the Lok Sabha. Across the country, State-level parties see an accretion of powers in the federal government unseen since the 1980s.

True, Mr. Modi has a wider mass appeal than any one since Mrs. Gandhi. But history is witness that such appeal can also have limits if voters decide that enough is enough. Has that point been reached? We simply do not know.

More central is the question of questions. Are you better off than you were five years ago, and if not, why not? If so, and even if not, do you think we are moving in the right direction?

In 2014, The Economist observed that if India had the per capita wealth of Gujarat, the country would rank with Spain. Has that dream come true or it is unravelling and fast? How voters answer that will show who they stand with.

(The writer is Professor of History and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University, Haryana. Source: The Hindu)


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