Every general election in India, right from the first one in 1952, has had its own narrative. And by and large, the results have gone with the dominant narrative of the day. The first exception to this ‘normal’ was in 2004, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost power in spite of its high-decibel ‘India shining’ campaign and in spite of a perceived positive voter-sentiment for the prime minister of the day, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Subsequently, in 2009 and in 2014, the fate of the elections went along predictable lines. In that sense, the results of the 2019 general elections have come as more of a shock and surprise — whether pleasant or unpleasant will depend upon which side of the political divide one is on. The narrative for the run-up to the elections and during the six weeks of campaigning was very much for Congress president Rahul Gandhi to seize the moment and say it once and for all — ‘I have arrived’. The vituperative campaign rhetoric unleashed by the BJP rank and file — including Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, and the likes of Pragya Thakur, the BJP candidate from Bhopal — set the bar so low that it will take quite sometime for the dust to settle down on this vicious tongue-trail that made personal-attacks look like a new normal.
The jobs data wasn’t really singing a happy tune. In addition, shoddy handling of the demonetisation policy and the hurried implementation of the goods and services tax (GST) were just a few of the reasons for a pollster not to put his or her money behind the saffron brigade. In short: The Bunsen burner of anti-incumbency was all set to fire up the chemistry for a non-BJP government at the Centre.
And yet, these results!
So where did things go wrong for India’s Opposition? Or shall we say, how did BJP manage to be spot on?
From the Kisan Samman Siddhi (a grant of Rs6,000 or Dh316 to every farmer who owns five acres of land) to 10 per cent reservation in jobs for the economically backward upper caste members; from Swachh Bharat (Clean India) to Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (the scheme to provide gas cylinders for cooking to women living below the poverty line) … the list is long. In five years of its rule at the Centre, the Modi-led dispensation rolled out one scheme after another that was all a part of a very carefully curated outreach plan aimed at the most impoverished sections of the society. Some of these were hobbled with logistical shortcomings right from their inception. For instance, Swachh Bharat. Under this project, more than 30 million toilets have been constructed in the country since 2014 to put an end to open defecation. However, in the 2017-2018 financial year, while Rs1.39 trillion was earmarked for construction of public toilets, the allocation for rural water infrastructure development was only Rs60 billion. Common sense says that in the absence of adequate water supply, many of these toilets will merely be edifices of a grandiose state plan hamstrung with teething trouble.
‘Surgical strike’ on economy
And yet, in several villages of poll-bound eastern Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state by size and population, there were reportedly a large number of voters — women in particular — for whom, the neighbourhood toilet built under Swachh Bharat constituted one of the most tangible signs of the Modi government’s commitment to social justice for the poorest of the poor. According to unofficial estimates, more than 200 people across India lost their lives for various reasons and circumstances connected to Modi’s demonetisation drive in November 2016. And yet, while thousands of people were made to wait for several hours in serpentine queues as ATMs ran out of cash, many were still seen thanking Modi for his ‘surgical strike’ on hoarders of black money.
That has really been the story of five years of Modi rule at the Centre. The optics were weaved so deftly into the tangibles that for the vast majority of India’s voters it was almost sacrilege not to have allowed Modi a second term in office. And this is where the Congress and all other Opposition parties came a cropper — they had neither the optics nor the tangibles to make a potent election pitch. Rahul’s much tom-tommed minimum income guarantee scheme — Nyay — that promised to provide an annual grant of Rs72,000 to 20 per cent of the poorest families, was just that — a scheme, with little to show for its efficacy on the ground. Obviously, being out of power, it couldn’t have done anything more than make an offer on paper to placate voter sentiment. Even the ‘Modi-vs-The Rest’ rhetoric that the Opposition tried to build so assiduously around its campaign was flawed to its core: It tried to pit a concept, that of a united Opposition, against a tangible, that was Modi!
The recipe was indeed in place for a heady concoction of ‘secular’ forces to neutralise the after-taste of a ‘communal’ BJP. But the point is, that LPG cylinder in one corner is a more potent reminder of what the source of the firepower has always been to get the kitchen up and running, in the first place!
The ‘touchpoints’ of Swachh Bharat, Ujjwala … have pipped Rahul to the post.