New Delhi: The action-packed and rather sour Lok Sabha elections spanning over a month and seven phases finally ended Sunday, becoming among the most ferociously fought, politically polarised and, in many ways, the most distinct in recent times.
Battleground 2019 was about the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) intense efforts to hold on to power against an opposition equally determined, although splintered, to see it voted out.
A lot happened in these 60-odd days — since polls were notified on 10 March — from a nasty campaign to questions being raised about the meant-to-be-neutral Election Commission, glaring cracks within the opposition and fierce social media wars.
As the curtains come down on polling and the wait for counting on 23 May begins, ThePrint looks at the seven most striking highlights (in no specific order) of this seven-phased polls.
Election Commission’s role
In recent times, the Election Commission of India has more or less been the behind-the-scenes operator, managing the mammoth exercise while being entrusted with the task of conducting it in a free and fair manner.
This election, however, was different. The commission frequently came under the scanner, with many alleging it was ‘biased’ towards the ruling dispensation, and even leading to a rather unprecedented internal war.
Rivals alleged that complaints against the Prime Minister and BJP president Amit Shah were ignored, with both getting a clean chit on all formal complaints.
The timing of the poll announcement was questioned as were decisions like putting an early end to campaigning in West Bengal following violent street fights between the BJP and Trinamool Congress.
The EC, meanwhile, stepped up on occasion, imposing temporary bans on campaigning on key leaders for violations — from Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to former UP CM Mayawati, Union Minister Maneka Gandhi and Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan.
The controversy around its role, however, brought more than the usual amount of spotlight on the poll panel.
Until a few months before the polls, the dominant issues seemed to be very different. Modi’s ‘stability’ versus a fluid opposition, farmer distress, joblessness, state equations and unfulfilled versus fulfilled promises were key. Congress president Rahul Gandhi did his best to push the Rafale deal and ‘chowkidar chor hai‘ narrative.
But eventually, national security became the loudest election cry, with the ruling BJP pushing it to the very hilt. The 14 February terror attack in Pulwama and the retaliatory air strikes by the Indian Air Force in Pakistan’s Balakot became the BJP’s overwhelming, and perhaps even only, poll plank.
From Modi and Shah to other party leaders and workers, everybody in the BJP fought the election on this narrative, hoping to box the opposition into a corner. The PM went as far as to ask first-time voters to “dedicate their votes” to soldiers who carried out the Balakot air strikes.
Balakot as an election issue resonated immensely in some places, moderately in some others and barely at all in the remaining, but did become the dominant narrative, leaving the Congress cry — Rafale — far behind.
If there is one thing this election will be most remembered for, it is the vicious, often personal, campaign and a low level of discourse.
Loose comments, mean remarks, sexist insinuations and communal threats — this poll had it all.
So, if Modi did not shy away from trolling former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated nearly three decades ago, Rahul Gandhi coined the slogan ‘chowkidar chor hai‘ to accuse the PM of being a thief.
If West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and former Uttar Pradesh CM Mayawati were at the receiving end of nasty sexism, along with other women leaders, they did not hesitate in resorting to personal attacks either, commenting on Modi’s marital status and more.
A fizzling grand anti-BJP alliance
The 2018 bypolls in Uttar Pradesh, in which the BJP lost even in its bastion of Gorakhpur, set the stage for some sort of a grand opposition alliance ahead of the Lok Sabha polls in order to counter Modi.
Hectic parleys between opposition leaders of all hues began and grand shows of unity were put up. For instance, at Karnataka Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy’s swearing-in ceremony in May last year, opposition leaders — some sworn rivals — shared the dais.
With time, however, cracks within the opposition camp became apparent, with eventually no grand alliance emerging at a national level. State-specific alliances also remained limited — for instance, Congress staying out of the very significant Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance in Uttar Pradesh.
In West Bengal, a four-cornered contest emerged with the Trinamool Congress, Congress and Left choosing to fight separately. In Delhi, the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party kept bickering till the last minute but could not come to an understanding.
The election was, thus, marked by the fizzling out of a much-touted grand opposition alliance at the national level.
Modi versus rest
The big talking point of this election was ‘Modi’, and with both how the BJP and opposition played, it became a ‘Modi versus rest’ battle.
The BJP thought making it a presidential style poll would suit it, given the lack of a credible alternative face at the national level. The election ended up becoming not just about Modi versus Gandhi but also about the PM versus various regional leaders.
Gandhi said chowkidar chor hai, accusing the PM of being a thief, Banerjee said she wanted to give him a “slap of democracy”, Mayawati took him on in a deeply personal battle and leaders of other parties also launched their attacks against him.
Modi, meanwhile, did exactly that as well — make this election about himself.
Prone to speaking in the third person, he would use the word ‘Modi’ in campaign speeches and how everyone was against him. So, while he took on Gandhi with the ‘naamdaar versus kaamdaar‘ jibe (the entitled versus the one who works hard), he gave Banerjee the moniker ‘speed breaker didi‘. He would attack ‘didi‘, ‘Naveen babu‘ (Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik), Mayawati and the UP gathbandhan, TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu, besides of course, Gandhi — to give a few instances.
Thus, in what is most reflective of this phenomenon, one saw a Modi versus Banerjee fight in West Bengal, and not the conventional TMC-Left or TMC-Congress one.
In an election as fiercely fought as this one, political parties resorting to varying degrees of communal polarisation is hardly unexpected.
The BJP, the master of this game, led from the front. Party president Shah made citizenship a religion-based issue and used the refugee problem to drive in the wedge — calling illegal immigrants “termites” and announcing in rallies that citizenship would be given to Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh refugees if his party were to return to power.
Communal pitches were made without any qualms. From union minister Maneka Gandhi not-so-subtly threatening Muslims to Mayawati asking Muslims to vote in one direction and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath bringing in the ‘Ali vs Bajrang Bali’ narrative — this election saw it all.
These, however, were the more overt and brazen attempts to polarise on communal lines. The undercurrents and subtle polarisation on the ground have been more powerful and are likely to have a greater impact on the elections.
Social media wars
This election was fought as much on social media as on the ground. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram and more — political parties and leaders left no medium untouched, no hashtag unused.
Those already active on social media sharpened their knives, while others entered the field afresh — like Mayawati or Priyanka Gandhi Vadra joining Twitter.
The Congress and the BJP were engaged in near-everyday hashtag wars, with the former pushing the ‘chowkidar chor hai‘ line, to counter which, BJP decided to go a step further with all its leaders — starting from the PM — prefixing their Twitter handles with ‘chowkidar‘.
Elections may be over, but that prefix still remains — in a sharp reminder of how critical social media has become to modern-day politics and elections.