Another chance at 'achche in'
It is a wonder how democracy in India has been thriving and power has peacefully changed hands sixteen times so far
The 2019 elections are coming to a close and on May 23 it will be known who forms the government. The Rs 1000-crore satta bazaar is predicting that the BJP will emerge as the single largest party and that the Congress will improve, and the regional parties will continue to be powerful. In 2014, there was an atmosphere of "vote out the corrupt Manmohan Singh government". In 2019, Prime Minister Modi is defending his throne. There was a 'Modi wave' then which is absent today but Modi has subsumed the party, which is asking for votes in his name. Modi was untested then and sold a big dream to the people promising "Achche Din". This time it is not a cakewalk as there is disenchantment among the voters. The 2019 election outcome depends on three things – performance of BJP in the Hindi heartland where it lost three states (Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh) to Congress in 2018, effectiveness of the regional satraps to hold their fiefdoms, and BJP's ability to make up the deficit in eastern parts of India.
Looking back, what would one remember about the 2019 poll? It was a lacklustre election and the poll atmosphere in many states was lukewarm. Secondly, there was little voter enthusiasm. In 2014, there was a good voter turnout as two in every three Indians voted with a gender gap negligible. The common man is indifferent to polls and NOTA (none of the above) option has gained popularity and is used by conscious voters who do not want any candidate in the list but want to prevent bogus voting. "Koi be aane do, hume kya farak padtha hai" is what most poor people say who are wooed by political parties. Even the 8.3 crore first-time voters did not show much enthusiasm.
Thirdly, 2019 saw a low level negative campaign with all sides trying to hit below the belt. This was true of BJP and even Prime Minister and his party chief Amit Shah lowered the bar attacking opponents. Modi referred to former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi as accused number one in Bofors case and that he had used the Navy for his holiday. Modi fought the elections by invoking nationalism and attacking the Gandhi family for their omissions and commissions over the decades. Congress too had lowered the bar by calling the prime minister 'Chowkidar chor hai'. Congress President Rahul Gandhi stuck to his pet issue of Rafale deal. The fierce verbal battle between West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and Modi was at its lowest. The Opposition was unable to bring back the poll narrative to bread and butter issues like jobs, rural crisis, price rise etc. However, at the state level where the regional satraps rule, the elections were fought on local issues. Modi had to fight these satraps at multiple levels.
Fourthly, the money power seen in 2019 was much higher than 2014. The corporates were encouraged to buy the anonymous elections bonds, which could be donated to the political parties. In 2018, election bonds worth about 10.6 billion rupees were purchased according to the official data. The election spending in 2019 may be $ 7 to $ 8 billion dollars, up from an estimated $ 5 billion in 2014 according to one estimate. The final price tag for even the 2016 US election was: $6.5 billion for the presidential and congressional elections combined, according to campaign finance watchdog OpenSecrets.org. There were allegations of bribing the voters with cash, luxury goods etc. in most parts of the country by the political parties. The Election Commission had seized over Rs 3999 crores including cash, drugs, liquor and gold.
Fifthly, Election Commission was not perceived to have played its role as a referee as opposition parties alleged that it was partial to the ruling party leaders. Despite the polarising speeches, the Commission allowed Prime Minister Modi and his party chief Amit Shah to continue to violate the code of conduct and rejected all the complaints. The Opposition led by the Congress even went to the Supreme Court seeking justice. Added to that were the glitches in the electronic voting machines about which many Opposition parties from all over the country complained.
Sixthly, these were one of the most polarising polls in recent times. People either loved Modi or hated him and the polls revolved around him. BJP used religion and Hindutva to the hilt, while Congress played its soft Hindutva card. Caste also played a crucial role in these polls. Poll violence marred the elections in some states like West Bengal.
Seventhly, social media had a much bigger role this time. However, with all its ups and downs, it is a wonder how democracy in India has been thriving and power has changed hands sixteen times so far peacefully. With all the complaints, the Election Commission needs to be complimented for conducting the polls by and large peacefully.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)