Verdict 2019 – Takeaways
From politics of inevitability to that of relatability, the results of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls hold lessons for all of us
On November 30 last year, when thousands of farmers had gathered in New Delhi protesting against the agricultural distress engulfing the country and calling for a special session of Parliament, a united opposition (with around 23 opposition leaders) made speeches in an attempt to assuage them.
This happened in the middle of Assembly Elections 2018 and eventually followed up with farm loan waivers in the three Hindi-speaking states (Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan) where Congress formed the government.
Circa May 2019, the only time the opposition leaders of over 20 parties congregated again was during the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) row, days after exit polls were announced, with almost every single exit poll predicting a clean sweep for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
If only the opposition had successfully pitched for a united front, established pre-poll alliances, and brought about the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) 3-led Common Minimum Programme to fruition, perhaps the numbers would have been slightly different.
It is only relevant to reflect just how one arrived at this juncture after Congress projected itself to be coming back with a resounding majority in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections barely six months back.
Timeliness of the Priyanka factor and Rahul 2.0
On January 23 this year, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's entry into politics as the general secretary of Congress made much noise about how finally the party was upping the ante for the more significant battle ahead.
Many expected she would contest elections. However, all the brouhaha over this evaporated without a whimper when the party instead chose to position Ajay Rai from Varanasi. While Priyanka's not contesting the elections may be her personal choice, the move did leave observers disappointed who wanted the Priyanka magic to work like a charm.
Over the years, "there is no alternative" or the TINA factor has come to define the maladies of the opposition. That there is no alternative, no option, and no charismatic leadership that could be pitted against BJP.
This narrative was slowly changing with Rahul Gandhi's transformation. His interaction with academics, students, and international communities; connect with the diaspora, induction of young minds into the party's manifesto team started to transform the erstwhile caricaturing that he was subjected to.
The tolerant and inclusive masterstrokes of "hugplomacy" and the syncretic statement after the assembly win last year of "Humein kisi ko bharat se mukt nahin karna hai" were reflective of an evolving brand: Rahul 2.0.
On the other hand, with Priyanka Gandhi's entry into politics, it was expected that the aggressive discourse could switch to a more congenial one. Priyanka exuded novelty, a towering charisma, political astuteness, and widely appreciated oratory skills, all of which had the potential to revolutionise the pre-electoral pitch of Congress.
However, Priyanka's maiden roadshow in Lucknow sans any electoral address belied countless hopes. The timing was a tad too late in the day to combat the aggression with which BJP contests. Author and columnist Prashant Jha terms this formidable force the "Amit Shah School of election management" in his book How the BJP wins Elections (2017).
Failure to link NYAY with MGNREGA
Next came the announcement of the much-celebrated Minimum Income Guarantee scheme. However, the party couldn't tap into this back in January, and couldn't sync that to its successful flagship programme, Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
Travel to any rural pocket of the country. Even in the most remote tribal hinterlands, an average citizen will invoke the "Rozgaar Guarantee" that generates an adequate "recall" echoing sentimentality with the successes of the scheme.
The Economic Survey 2017-18 points out at the scheme's successes in spite of its various caveats — approximately 4.6 crore households were given employment under MGNREGA, of which 54 per cent were taken up by women alone.
Congress didn't have to wait for the official manifesto announcements of Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) to tap into the potential of minimum income guarantee clubbed with voicing the successes of MGNREGA, primarily because the announcement of the Minimum Income Guarantee was done before the interim budget presentation of 2019, amidst all the clamour and speculation over Universal Basic Income (UBI) by the government — therefore giving Congress an upper hand.
The NYAY pledge stemmed more from a place of anger and got reduced to mere advertorial theatrics, with people questioning its economic viability. Anger and passion-based sloganeering such as "Ab Hoga Nyay", or the chowkidaar jibe were formidable ideas to have worked in an already-jaded environment of political campaigning.
Moving beyond the 'Khan Market' cabal
In this context, it is imperative to note that masses fighting issues of unemployment and economic problems are, at best, limitedly bothered with the cover page of an international magazine, or editorials by occasional political tourists. An average voter is immensely fatigued with day-to-day bureaucratic hurdles; the sundry mundaneness of economic and household vocations, further isolated with the technological invasion amidst a deluge of information.
In such an ecosystem of continuous willy-nilly connectedness, nuanced marketing masterstrokes such as an interview with a Bollywood film star laced with light-hearted personal anecdotes, or visits to temples seemed to have resonated with voters over and above the immediate needs of protection of national interests and nurturing national security. Politics of relatability, therefore, precedes politics of inevitability, the latter term borrowed from Timothy Snyder's book On Tyranny (2017).
Political parties are known to keep a gatekeeping culture, which in place of democratising politics, manages to create multiple hierarchies within hierarchies. The oft-mentioned "Khan Market" coterie is not just limited to a select few in the fourth estate, but more closely redirects the attention to the nexuses on top, where only a certain power elite has "access to privilege."
The Khan Market cabal disapproval that has come to haunt the hoity-toity enthusiasts carving out policies over chai-latte in the niche circles of Delhi is not limited to the Lutyens Zone but extends beyond the cosmetic ivory towers of a specific select few who seem to be the self-appointed messiahs of, by, and for the poor. This network is omnipresent in every elite locality of Delhi, where activists and intellectuals debate over concerns of ecology, poverty, illiteracy, and food security over cocktails.
In such a scenario, the politics of grassroots, as an extension to relatability, that of empowering the electorate from below, works in place of computerised manifestos, Instagram posts, and retweets. Arun Jaitley's opening speech at the release of the BJP manifesto, claimed how it was "not the ivy league manifesto" — a statement echoing the sentiments of the masses, deliberately excluded from an elitist system owing to exclusivity of languages, resources, and entitlements.
It is this voter that wants politics of connectedness, a sense of association. It is this voter that wants the tyranny of distance minimised, participate in inclusive and representative politics while breaking the barricades of hierarchy, dynastic privileges, and privilege. This was one reason why many related to the politics of the Aam Aadmi Party, while it was still evolving.
Initiatives such as inclusive grassroots politics undertaken by Congress in Rajasthan under the leadership of Sachin Pilot, talent pools such as the All India Professionals' Congress (AIPC) under the guidance of Shashi Tharoor and Salman Soz among others, communication by Rahul Gandhi with party workers via the Shakti app, people consultations for manifestos undertaken by political parties, door-to-door campaigning by the Aam Aadmi Party, interpersonal voter-centric campaigns by BJP help decentralise the centralised idea of politics.
An effective convergence of polity and policy shall entail taking the discourse to the bottom of the pyramid, establishing an emotional connect with people, ethnographic evaluations, a careful study of what schemes have worked and what haven't.
Additionally, elaborate, sustained, and continuous discussions with farmers, women, marginalised communities, and not mere guest appearances, usage of methodologies such as participant observation away from the "selfie-driven-village touristy cameos" shall define the order of things and the idea of India, detached from air-conditioned jumlebaazi, as demonstrated by the verdict.
(The author is a social sector consultant who has worked as Prime Minister's Rural Development Fellow in Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh. Views are strictly personal)