Make no mistake, the 2019 Lok Sabha elections are just about Narendra Modi – not BJP, not the Sangh Parivar, not even the five years of (mis)governance.
The key theme of the BJP seems to be – Narendra Modi versus anarchy. And the party is aggressively pushing for it.
The issues of gaushalas, Ayodhya, development and economy are all now on the backburner.
Just notice how the hyper-nationalistic rhetoric of Pulwama and Balakot have taken over media debates. Modi has ‘won’ and this is the only key issue now.
Over the next 150 rallies across the country, PM Modi will portray Jawaharlal Nehru as the chief villain and Congress president Rahul Gandhi an irrelevant Congressman. He will continue to talk about a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’. These days, he quotes Gandhi, who he says, wanted the Congress Party disbanded in1947 itself. Modi does not speak on any of the issues on which he campaigned five years ago. No other minister or leader is as visible in the campaign.
The agenda now is ‘One nation, one leader’ and a perception war has begun.
Changes in the top agenda
Modi practically promised everything during his 2014 campaign. From strengthening the rupee to bringing down petrol prices to generating lakhs of jobs – not to mention the deposit of Rs 15 lakhs – he talked about it all.
But these did not happen.
Even cows have disappeared from the headlines, and are roaming now on the streets or dying in shelters built to keep them safe.
There is no talk of bringing back the crores of rupees stacked in foreign banks. Nor is black money a theme anymore. Manufacturing is down, exports are not growing, small and medium industries are closing, investments are shrinking, foreign investments are freezing, and unemployment is rising.
The middle and upper middle class, however, are thriving, even if there is a major farm crisis in the country.
Five years ago, we were told that India’s new neighbourhood-friendly approach under Modi will shape the foreign policy. So, the heads of neighbouring states gathered to welcome the arrival of Narendra Modi as the prime minister.
But that dawn never came as the relationships collapsed, and war clouds (both, fake and real) began to hover. China even supported Pakistan over the terrorist listing of Masood Azhar, despite the creation of the so-called Wuhan spirit. Nepal and Maldives grew distant from India. It is clear that our foreign policy is in wilderness. The neighbourhood is in a shamble.
A battle of perceptions
Now, this election will be fought on perceptions. The new intellectual mantra is: Perception is the new reality. The party and the leaders must manage and manipulate the message to influence the masses. They will talk about not what they have actually achieved, but what they claim to have achieved. It may be very different from what is happening on the ground, but reality can go for a walk.
Indeed, just a few days before the IAF air strikes on Balakot, economy expert Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar had written in his column that Modi should “Stick to political theatre, it is safer than risking war with Pak”. Aiyar had further written that the 2016 surgical strikes were more successful in the media and social media than on the ground.
Modi seems to have followed Aiyar’s advice in toto and made the air strikes a defining moment of nationalism. That is how nationalism became the focal point of the election, eclipsing all other issues. The media frenzy over nationalism would want us to believe that even farmers and the unemployed youth are now more concerned about the destruction of Pakistan than loan waivers or jobs.
Modi has shown “killer instinct”, which Manmohan Singh did not have, say the TV debates. Like games on smartphones, one can create the virtual reality of Pakistan getting wiped out for mental satisfaction and frenzy.
Missing ‘key’ issues
Has the opposition taken lead in presenting the real issues then?
The crisis of climate change does not figure on election manifestos. The drought situation has worsened in the country and summer is almost here. Farmer suicides have increased in Punjab, Karnataka and Maharashtra. The crisis in agriculture, say experts, is directly related to climate change. Rural distress is a consequence of that.
Education has also taken a backseat before the elections. While everybody talks about unemployment and skill development, education does not figure in anybody’s campaign. Perhaps it will in a couple of manifestos. What happened to the hundreds of medical colleges and IITs promised across India? Primary education continues to be in doldrums as the dropout rate in rural India remains high.
It is not fashionable to talk of foreign policy issues in campaigns. During the Nehru-Krishna Menon era, when there was hardly any challenge to the Congress leadership, there used to be political debates on foreign policy issues. Now Modi says that we are one of the most influential countries in the world. But the Nuclear Suppliers Group membership is still contentious. China can put a break on every issue that India thinks it can take up – from Doklam to Masood Azhar.
In a few days from now, the election frenzy will hit the roof and TV media will go berserk. Narendra Modi will be omnipresent and omnipotent. Rahul Gandhi will counter, without the help or support of the media. Priyanka Gandhi will join him in the stereophonic campaign.
But ultimately, the only issue will be Narendra Modi. The Sangh is feeling isolated and marginalised. Modi cleverly keeps Hindutva and cows out because he knows the world media will not be sympathetic to him if he takes up these subjects. The global press pooh-poohed even the air strikes on Pakistan. He knows that the international media cannot be brought into his embedded network.
Even during ‘Indira hatao’ days in 1971, such frenzy was not there, perhaps because the media explosion was absent. Be that as it may, the Modi campaign for 2019 is being built around perception management than real issues.