It is difficult to remember an Indian election as boring as this one. People aren’t talking about it. There’s hardly any chatter. It’s a bit strange.
Voters are generally a lot more enthused about state assembly elections because they impact their lives far more directly. Even so, if one were to compare this election with 2014’s, one wonders why this one is so low-key.
Part of the problem is precisely that one is wittingly or unwittingly comparing it to 2014. That was the mother of all elections. The UPA-2 had become so discredited that a desire for change was all-pervasive. There was the backdrop of the Lokpal movement and the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party, making Arvind Kejriwal come across as a national phenomenon. And then, there was the challenger from Gujarat taking the country by storm, Narendra Modi.
No chai no charcha
In 2019, however, the Modi campaign isn’t making as much noise as it did in 2014. There are no 3D rallies, no Chai pe Charcha, and no giant promises. A look at how poor the BJP manifesto is, how half-heartedly it has been prepared, and how poor its choice of candidates has been in many places tell you that the BJP isn’t fighting a high-pitched battle.
We’ve got so used to Modi’s non-stop hyper campaigning round the year that Modi’s 2019 campaign doesn’t feel special. It’s what Modi does all the time anyway. Making people wear ‘NaMo Again’ t-shirts and dance on the streets just doesn’t have the traction that it did in 2014. It seems basic.
A poor BJP campaign
The BJP has also been running an inconsistent campaign. One can’t tell whether the BJP’s pitch this election is development or Pakistan or Hindutva or Congress-bashing. Unlike 2014 when the theme was Vikas, there’s no clarity this time.
If the high point of the BJP campaign was the Balakot air strikes, which took place on 26 February, then it already feels like a long time ago.
Perhaps the BJP’s decision to field Pragya Singh Thakur, who is out on bail in a terrorism case, is helping it galvanise its workers and Hindutva core supporters. Yet even the core workers and supporters are lacking the energy they showed in 2014.
The fact that the BJP’s slogan, ‘Main Bhai Chowkidar’, was meant to negate the Congress’ ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ says a lot. It tells you that the BJP is essentially playing a defensive game. It’s afraid of the anti-incumbency sentiment, as it should be, given its poor performance on the economic front. What could a government possibly say when it’s going to the polls with an economic slowdown? The BJP is also not making big promises on development because it knows they could backfire. They would make people wonder if Modi kept his 2014 promises. The ‘feku’ tag didn’t damage Modi in 2014 but this time it could.
A weak challenger
The election could have been interesting if it had a serious challenger showing the willingness and the confidence to defeat Modi. Rahul Gandhi and the wider opposition are not giving the impression that they are about to win this election.
The Congress party’s data cruncher, Praveen Chakravarty, said in an interview that his party would triple its 2014 tally. In other words, the Congress party says it is going to win 132 seats, which is not even enough to form a Congress-led coalition. When the lead opposition party doesn’t even say it’s going to win, how can voters be expected to get excited about this election?
After winning three key states on 11 December 2018, the Congress thought it could defeat Modi by raising the Rafale issue. Nobody is talking about Rafale anymore. This was a serious miscalculation on the part of the Congress since the top issue for people was unemployment. Till date, the Congress has not been able to create any buzz on how it would solve the unemployment issue if it came to power.
Over the Rafale issue, Rahul Gandhi coined the slogan ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’. It did gain some traction but it was a poor slogan because it reminded people of how Modi likes to be seen: as a chowkidar, a watchman of the nation. Modi took the opportunity and deflated the slogan with ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’. In any case, corruption is not on the top of people’s minds, and ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ was never going to defeat the BJP.
Can you hear the Congress?
The Congress chose the shuddh Hindi word ‘Nyay’ to promise a minimum income support scheme. It promises to make sure that no Indian family has less than Rs 12,000 a month. Yet this promise has failed to create a Congress wave among the poor, not least because it came so late and the Congress doesn’t have the ability to take it to the masses. People are unwilling to trust the Congress on this.
In any case, what they really need is employment and the Congress has failed to tell them how it would create jobs. Neither ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ nor ‘Nyay’ captures the main public issue — jobs. So poor is the Congress at reaching out to the people that in Uttar Pradesh some voters felt it was a campaign promise of the Bahujan Samaj Party!
The party came up with an imaginative manifesto but the average voter doesn’t know what it promises. Farmers don’t know, for instance, that the Congress is promising a nation-wide loan waiver to them. It doesn’t help that the media gives Modi, and not the Congress, a wall-to-wall coverage. And the latter hardly has any money to campaign.
A dull match
Regional parties are anyway on the backfoot as they face another presidential campaign being waged in Modi’s name. The answer to ‘If not Modi then who?’ is not KCR or Arvind Kejriwal or Mamata Banerjee. As regional parties worry more about this election’s repercussions on state politics, they are unable to make the national election interesting.
The SP-BSP alliance in UP has made it somewhat interesting. The BJP’s push in Bengal and Odisha has made these two states worthy of national attention. Apart from these, the election is largely boring.
A defensive incumbent who does not deserve to win, and a rag-tag opposition that does not want to win make for a dull election season.
Views are personal.