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Why Indians care more about their PM than their MP

From Nehru to Modi, the ‘presidential style’ campaign has been the default in Indian elections.

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India, it is said, is run by ‘PM, CM, DM’ – the prime minister, the chief minister and the district magistrate. There’s little that people can do about the district magistrate, who is effectively controlled by the chief minister. The people can, thankfully, decide who their chief minister and prime minister will be. Given the power these posts command, can we really blame the people for not wanting to know in advance who their chief minister or prime minister might be?

The members of legislative assemblies (MLAs) or Parliament (MPs) are technically just lawmakers. It doesn’t matter much to people who their MLA or MP is. In fact, if you go around asking people to name their MLA or MP, you will be surprised to see many blank faces.

The chief minister decides who your DM will be, or whether your area will get new projects for development. The prime minister can take your country to war and make you stand in a queue to exchange your own money. It is thus expected that voters would want to know in advance who the likely probables for the post of prime minister and chief minister are.

Also read: Why voters don’t turn up in larger numbers in Lok Sabha elections – all politics is local

The Prime Ministerial election

It is widely perceived that Narendra Modi has made Indian elections ‘presidential’. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Indian elections were always presidential—or shall we say prime ministerial. This is not true of India alone. There is no parliamentary democracy in the world where the face of the party is not a key determinant to its electoral prospect.

How did Mahatma Gandhi come to personify the freedom movement? It is not true that Gandhi was given post-facto credit for things he didn’t deserve. On the contrary, he is not given credit for taking the movement from the elite Bombay lawyers’ meetings to the masses in the hinterland. That is why he deservedly became the father of the nation.

Were Jawaharlal Nehru’s elections not presidential style? Is it possible that when people went to vote in the 1951 general election, it didn’t matter to them that Nehru was the prime minister? Did they not realise that by voting for the Congress MP they were putting their destiny in the hands of Nehru, a freedom movement stalwart who was a great unifier, who could bring together the Left and the Right under the umbrella of the Congress party?

There are people even today who remember and long for the leader that Indira Gandhi was. A man running a tea shop in Unnao near Lucknow told me a few weeks ago that Narendra Modi was the best leader the country has had since Indira Gandhi. What that tells you is that people care deeply about who their prime minister is, often more than who their MP is. It is not Modi who has made Indian elections ‘presidential’ – that is how they have always been.

Also read: Modi draws the worst, dumps the best of Nehru & Indira Gandhi — and this might win him 2019

When there is no leader

In scenarios where we don’t have a mass leader capturing the imagination of the people, we get hung assemblies. Or we may have another scenario where an incumbent popular leader falters, but there is no popular challenger able to persuade voters that she would make a good PM instead. In such a situation, too, we are likely to see a hung assembly – and the 2019 election may be such a case.

We have had coalition governments thrown up in general elections from 1989 to 2009. Yet even during this period, clarity about who could be the prime minister was of prime importance to voters. It was a ‘presidential style’ campaign through which V.P. Singh managed to defeat Rajiv Gandhi – no mean feat considering Rajiv was the incumbent prime minister with almost four fifths of the seats in Parliament!

After the unstable coalitions of H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral, it was arguably the popular figure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee that helped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) form and lead two coalition governments over six years. And perhaps it did matter to voters that Manmohan Singh gave India a fairly stable, forward-looking government in its first term, helping the Congress win 206 seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha election.

The evidence from the states is even stronger. In West Bengal, it’s all about ‘Didi’ Mamata Banerjee. People are not fond of the muscle machine of the Trinamool Congress, but they vote in the name of Didi. The mass leader people trusted before Mamata Banerjee was Jyoti Basu, who held the chief minister’s post for 23 straight years. His successor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee couldn’t match up.

Be it K. Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) or Ashok Gehlot, Naveen Patnaik or Raman Singh, Nitish Kumar or Amarinder Singh – far too many state elections in India are fought and won based on the projected chief ministerial face. People trusted the Congress in Delhi for 15 years because they could trust Sheila Dikshit. The BJP had, and continues to have, the absence of a leader in its Delhi unit who could win the trust of a cross-section of Delhi’s population and not just the party’s core vote base. Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party managed to do that.

Also read: The 2019 election is just about Narendra Modi, not BJP, Sangh or even opposition

Don’t count state by state

It is therefore ridiculous to blame Narendra Modi for ‘making’ Indian elections ‘presidential’. If he returns to power on 23 May, it will in large measure be because of his own popularity, and because the opposition doesn’t have a prime ministerial face, not even a poor one. There is no one standing up to say, ‘Here I am, willing and able to lead the nation.’

Narendra Modi showed in 2014 that Indian elections are not a sum of the states. And, that there is such a thing as an Indian national imagination always waiting to be tapped. Should Modi lose in 2019, it will be because people voted against him, not because they voted in favour of the rudderless opposition. To that extent, the main issue in this election is Modi.

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