Polls 2019: 3Ms versus 3Ps

It is not just about who wins but also about what (agenda) wins. India needs the 3Ps: Principles, policy, and political roadmap

As the general elections draw closer, it is expected to be the mother of all general elections in India with the nation deeply divided from the middle, there is a lot of Vivaad (Conflict) and less of Samvaad (Communication) among the competing poles of the Indian discourse: Right-wing Hindutva versus the Centre-Left opportunistic conglomeration being trumpeted as United Opposition. Experts are debating that the contest is between the chemistry of Modi (enigma of a powerful leadership narrative) and the arithmetic of Congress-led opposition (the facts of castes and regional collective).

I would like to look at the possibilities emerging from a few perspectives:

First, the last Lok Sabha polls in 2014 was about a corrupt dispensation of Congress-led UPA with a policy paralysis written all over it versus the promise of Modi and his much-touted development narrative (control of black money, benefits worth 15 lacs to each voter, 2 crores jobs a year, bullet train, infrastructural leap, minimum support prices to farm produce, etc). Today, it is not the promise, but the performance of the last 50 months (and more, by election time) that will be on test. So, the same style and slogans of Modi may not work, however hard trumpeted.

Second, in times of personality-driven electronic media, compromises in the media, and cult of personality, presidentialisation of the general elections is highly possible. 'Modi versus who' might be the discourse riding high above voting on which specific issues. So, while BJP will do its best to turn the debate into Modi versus who, the opposition will try to avoid this answer and draw attention of their perceived issues before people. They will do well to draw the attention towards economic failures rather than getting stuck with communal or other emotive issues.

Third, Modi-Shah surely preside over a phenomenal election machine, supplemented with almost an endless supply of money (more so, in times of secret electoral bonds), and a largely compromised subservient media which has let go the role of the watchdog of those in power. These three Ms: money, media and machine make for the dynamics of Modi-Shah juggernaut which has been reaping advantage wherever they had to manage a few, as in Goa, Meghalaya, Nagaland, and in Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman polls. BJP, on its side, will naturally harp on a strong leader with a vision for India being opposed by an army of self-styled regional satraps with a single agenda of anti-Modism and no vision.

Fourth, the 3Ms' might can be combated by the opposition only if it rises above petty party politics and combine the arithmetic of regional forces with Congress at the core being a national party within the opposition, and rise above anti Modism, to a heightened level of alternative agenda, a common minimum program of governance. A tall order to expect, and the RS Deputy Chairman polls recently show how tall it is indeed.

Fifth, regional allies are important on both the sides. For Modi, the saviour in case BJP goes below 200 seats in Lok Sabha ahead shall be the support of Shiv Sena, Akali Dal, and Janata Dal-United from within the alliance, and the expected support of AIADMK, Telangana Rashtra Samiti, YSR Congress, and Biju Janata Dal from outside the NDA alliance (who may come only later). For the opposition, keeping all their regional parties together and manage a few among TRS, BJD etc shall be crucial. With Telegu Desam Party of Chandrababu Naidu and DMK firmly placed within the opposition, YSR Congress and AIADMK are as good as gone to rival BJP-led NDA. The Congress-led opposition has also so far failed to manage support of Aam Admi Party, smarting from its loss of power to AAP in Delhi. But the reality is an association with AAP, can benefit the opposition in at least three states: Delhi, Haryana and Punjab. So, the chemistry of BJP and Congress with their respective regional allies will be more crucial before they build chemistry with the electorate.

Sixth, for the nation, it is not only about who wins, but also about what (agenda) wins, and just now none of the two contending groups is talking about that much. What is at stake is the corrosion of the foundation of the Republic, and its Constitutional tenets, whether it is federalism, independence of the judiciary, the RBI and the Election Commission, protection of RTI, separation of powers among various arms of the government with checks and balances, freedom of the press etc. Facing this monumental challenge, the opposition has not been able to mainstream the need to protect these fundamentals.

Seventh, what India needs now is the 3Ps: principles, policy, political roadmap. Principles of Constitutional fundamentals noted above and protection of democratic ethos of debate and dissent without being harassed, arrested or killed: is the single most important need. Policies which bring about MSPs and loan waivers to farmers, full OROP to armed forces veterans, dignity and protection to Dalits, women and minorities: which are neither being articulated by the Opposition nor by the ruling dispensation. Ruling NDA is seen in favour of partial MSP and OROP, Triple Talaq noise (as against Women's Reservation) for the women, selective lynching being justified on ground, and demonisation of the minorities in various forms including selective presence in National Registrar of Citizens in Assam.

Eighth, while the political discourse in India needs to be Kisan-Jawaan, it is increasingly becoming Hindu-Mussalman. While the need is to focus on the economy, it is becoming victim of highly emotive communal outrage which creates an atmosphere of majority victimhood and vitiates collective judgement ahead of an election. When Indira Gandhi's funeral images were used by Congress to register a historic win for Rajiv Gandhi in 1984, similar high decibel emotive narrative dominated the play of reason as is seen today.

Ninth, Modi had created hope in 2014, though much of it may be considered unfulfilled or hyped when looked at today. But the Opposition has not been able to create any alternative narrative of hope yet. If the opposition can raise questions like are you better off today than 2014, are the cows and the Ganges in better health than 2014, has demonetisation and multiple-layer GST benefitted the small and medium enterprises and the man on the street, et al, along with what it can do better in each aspect of public life, it may be able to create some hope. But the grand old party as always is waiting to see the BJP cookie crumble on its own, and all parties flocking to it automatically, which is not the case.

Tenth, the elephant in the room is the regional parties. The BJP's regional allies are waiting for a scenario where BJP is well below 200 seats and they play a decisive role even for creating an NDA government without Modi at the helms. The Congress allies are waiting for a scenario where Congress is well below 120 seats and they play the leading role in forming the government, event with a non-Congress Prime Minister. The Black Swan moment of BJP winning 90 per cent seats of 11 major states of India in 2014 is not the case today, and neither has Congress shown any appetite for victory anywhere unless it wins one or two states going to polls this year: MP, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh mainly.

But then, in either case, where is the nation going? Should we participate in an election on negative agenda and conversation around NRC, appeasement, lynching, Triple Talaq, Love Jihad etc, or on a positive agenda of Kisan's growth, jobs, empowerment, women's security, veterans and Dalit-minority contributions to the political economy?

(Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury is a columnist and media academic. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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