Poll campaign gets shriller, dirtier
Many Narendra Modi zealots are acting as if he had already been sworn in as prime minister, or as if that were only a matter of time. They have taken their cue from Modi’s 29 March statement in Chandigarh, where he declared himself India’s future PM. He says the people have chosen the government even before voting; the national election is a mere formality to be gone through.
Such contrived hype about a ‘Modi wave’, bankrolled by corporations, and propagated by much of the media, ignores four main trends which have emerged in the last couple of weeks. These suggest the election still remains open-ended. Modi has doubtless established an edge, but it isn’t decisive, and cannot ensure the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance’s election victory.
First, the Modi campaign has peaked and is losing some of its momentum. Its early gains were impressive, but have since eroded with growing internal resentment over the distribution of tickets, and the difficulty of sealing satisfactory alliances that boost the NDA. Modi’s ‘56-inch-chest’ machismo and ultra-nationalistic rhetoric is sounding unimaginatively boastful, if not childish. Second, neither the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance nor the regional parties have grown into a credible national alternative pole of attraction to the BJP which can effectively take on the Modi campaign. If the Congress lacks combativeness, the regional parties lack cohesion, coordination and mutual trust.
However, strong caste/community-based regional groupings like the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, and the Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, not to speak of the more broad-based Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, seem set to play a major role in their respective states.
Third, the Left parties are floundering and have no national-level strategy. They are unsure of their electoral chances in their former bastions West Bengal and Kerala, and are experimenting with little-known candidates and independents. They cannot define their contribution to the formation of a non-Congress-non-BJP front/force. Left unity, long their major asset, is under threat. The Revolutionary Socialist Party has quit the Left front in Kerala after 35 years, and the CPI and CPM are negotiating with rival groups in states like Andhra/Telangana. Finally, the Aam Aadmi Party’s campaign has lost part of its thrust and lustre. Although some candidates (e.g. Medha Patkar) have grown stronger, AAP’s overall prospect and impact appears to have recently declined. It’s no longer targeting ‘cronyism’ in a sustained way. It faces inner-party dissidence as never before. Its entire Gurgaon unit has quit, complaints abound of candidate selection without democratic consultation, and four AAP candidates have returned their tickets.
Whether these trends will persist or change remains unclear. But opinion polls notwithstanding, they define the framework within which the Lok Sabha election will be fought, with all its uncertainties.
Modi has introduced a new confrontationist, viciously personal, element into his campaign by his deplorable remarks branding defence minister A K Antony ‘AK-48’ and AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal
‘AK-49’, obliquely referring to his 49-day tenure in Delhi. It’s patently absurd to malign these leaders as Pakistani agents. Kejriwal had clearly distanced himself from AAP colleague Prashant Bhushan’s demand for a referendum on the use of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the Kashmir Valley, in itself unobjectionable given the widespread sentiment there against the much-abused AFSPA.
Modi has returned to unspeakably low-level attacks similar to those he made in 2002. He said the Muslim victims of that carnage had turned their sordid relief camps into ‘breeding factories’ by practising the norm of ‘hum panch, hamare pachees’, implying that all Muslim men have four wives and that Muslims don’t ever practise family planning, which is simply untrue.
Modi may have recently desisted from using explicitly communal language in his speeches – for tactical reasons. But his persona and image remain steeped in rabid Hindutva. It’s impossible to miss the undercurrent of Islamophobia in his hate-driven pronouncements, or those of BJP leaders like V K Malhotra, who called Jamia Nagar and Batla House ‘hubs of terrorists’. This vitiated the climate. Next came an indefensibly intemperate remark from the Congress’s Saharanpur candidate Imran Masood, who threatened to ‘chop’ Modi ‘into pieces’. Masood was arrested and publicly condemned by Rahul Gandhi for his remarks in the presence of his wife. By contrast, the BJP has only issued a mild, token, reprimand to Malhotra.
More important, the BJP has once again shown its deep antipathy towards Muslims. It hasn’t fielded a single Muslim candidate in Uttar Pradesh. Worse, it has given tickets to three men implicated in the Muzaffarnagar riots, whose victims were overwhelmingly Muslim. Modi’s candidature from Varanasi is also meant to signify his claim to a ‘pan-Hindu’ identity, from Somnath to Kashi. Make no mistake. Despite the recent entry into the BJP of a few Muslim businessmen from Gujarat, some obscure Maulvis, and turncoat journalist M J Akbar, who has been currying favour with the party for years, only a negligible number of Muslims are likely to vote for the BJP anywhere in India.
This poses a wrenching dilemma for UP’s Muslims. In 2009, they voted in significant numbers for the Congress, then a rising force, which seemed a better bet than the Samajwadi Party which had tarnished its secular reputation by admitting former BJP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, who was held guilty by the Supreme Court for complicity in the Babri mosque demolition.
Today, Muslims in UP are even more disillusioned with the SP because of Muzaffarnagar, but the Congress is hardly in the reckoning as a winning party. So many Muslims are likely to vote for the BSP, which has nominated the highest number of Muslim candidates of all parties (19 of 80), compared to the SP’s 13/78 and Congress’ 11/65. The competition for UP’s Muslim vote, 19 percent of the total, will be fierce, especially in the 20-odd constituencies where they form a sizable and influential proportion of the population. Unless mavericks like muscleman Mukhtar Ansari jump into the fray – he lost to Murli Manohar Joshi by just 17,000 votes in Varanasi in 2009 – BSP is likely to have the edge, although the SP, the Congress and Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal cannot be written off. Muslims are likely to vote for whichever party is best placed to defeat the BJP in their constituency/region.
Whichever way the Muslim vote concentrates and divides, one proposition will stand. To make a successful bid for power, the BJP will have to accomplish many things. It must on its own win 40-45 seats in UP and 20-25 seats in Bihar, and sweep all its ‘home states’ – that is, raise its seat-tally in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh (total, 91 seats) from 45 in 2009 to 75-plus.
It will also have to do well in states like Maharashtra and Karnataka, and win new allies (other than the Shiv Sena, Akali Dal, Lokjanashakti Party, Telugu Desam and DMDK at present) by making a respectable showing in Andhra/Telangana, Assam, Jharkhand and a few other states. This alone can make the BJP the nucleus of an NDA which wins enough seats to approach the half-way 272 mark.
This is difficult, yet possible. But it means that the BJP must run a highly divisive communalised campaign, especially in UP and Bihar. Not only will this get it into problems with some of its allies, which would have been far more comfortable with a Vajpayee-style ‘moderate’ leadership. It will also create a coalition which rejects difference, dissent, compromise and consensus.
But accepting and accommodating difference, even respecting it, is a precondition for leadership of the entire nation – as distinct from the position of a buccaneer-challenger who deals with all opposition by crushing it, and hence wins admiration from his committed band of supporters.
Yet, accommodation and respect for difference is something that’s totally alien to Modi. He is incurably authoritarian by nature and has an obsessive ‘winner-takes-all’ approach. This can only have dangerous consequences for our democracy, which is based on delicate balances and on the acceptance and tolerance of India’s great ethnic-cultural-religious diversity and political plurality.
We witnessed some of these consequences in the 1970s, first, in the wholesale rejection of the political system as altogether illegitimate under Jayaprakash Narayan’s ‘Total Revolution’ and party-less democracy movement, and then, more brutally, under Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.
If Modi wins, his regime is likely to have even worse effects, with systematic attacks on civil and political rights, railroading of all legitimate opposition, despotic imposition of corporate-driven economic agendas, and further militarisation and communalisation of society, which will lead to the indiscriminate harassment of conscientious citizens, and outlawing and repression of dissent.
Sadly, there isn’t enough awareness of these dangers or political mobilisation against them. The Left, with some progressive regional parties, could have catalysed such mobilisation. AAP could have contributed to it. Alas, they are too weak to matter – largely because of their own mistakes. IPA