Lucknow: A little over three weeks from now, Indians will start voting in national elections, a mamoth excercise spanning seven phases and over four weeks. In a nation of more than 1.35 billion, almost 900 million people -- three times the population of the US -- are elligible to vote at a million polling booths across the country.
From April 11, Indian electorates will vote for the 17th time since independence and the entire exercise will be over on May 23 when election results will be declared. These elections are considered extraordinary in many ways -- a test of India's pluralistic character and its ability to rise above narrow identities, aggressive nationalism and majoritarian rule. Most importantly, will people vote for bread-butter issues or be influenced by the prevailing discourse of nationalism and Hindutva.
Since independence, India has resisted the temptation to become an absloute majoritarian state by protecting its minorities and the vulenerable class through constitutional provisions and affirmative actions. Many believe that this may change if Prime Minister Narendra Modi is re-elected, no right wing leader has got two consecutive terms. In 2014, Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party had broken the decades old records by getting absloute majority, sweeping vast swaths of the country in a verdict that had stunned the nation and relagated India's grand Congress party to an embarrasingly small group of lawmakers in Parliament's elected house.
After four years and ten months of his rule, little has changed as far as Modi is concerned -- he remains the most popular and the most controversial politician in India. Also, he remains a deeply polarising figure -- those who support him are considered nationalists while his critics are called "anti-nationals". Today, there is no other Indian leader who can match his charishma, his determination to win electoral battles and his political astuteness to set national discourse and spin issues in his favour. Every day that Modi spent in the office since 2014, he remained in election mode, his utterances and actions directed at impressing supporters or berating critics.
2014 Vs 2019
Whichever way you look at it, Modi's performance in office is far from satisfactory. He squandered away the huge mandate of 2014 and failed to utilise his enormous political capital in governing India -- governance was poor, economy was mismanaged, priorities were misplaced and his own unstatesman like conduct as a tall leader occupying the highest office did not help. It was not surprising then that his support base had shrunk and recent electoral defeats in state elections dented the armour of invincibility he himself and his party machinery had carefully built. Till January, it was clear the Modi was fighting a tough challenge from Rahul Gandhi's Congress and his re-election was doubtful. The reasons for his dwindling support were many -- farm sector distress, economic mismanagemnt, rising unemployment and a growing perception that his government is not free from corruption. Modi himself is directly accused of "stealing" money in the multi-billion dollar Rafale deal.
Then, Pulwama happened.
India erupted in anger after the brutal killing of 40 paramilitary soldiers in a terrorist attack in Jammu and Kashmir on Valentine's Day. Sensing the public mood and a potential opportunity, Modi ordered strikes on suspected terrorist hideouts. For the first time in decades, Indian fighter jets flew deep into Pakistani territory and struck at what India said was a training camp for terrorists who were planning more attacks. To an average Modi supporter, it doesn't matter what was hit and how much damage Indian jets inflicted on the terrorists. For him, Modi is the ultimate hero for "avenging" Pulwama by ordering strikes on Pakistan, a nation that evokes strong hatred in the minds of an average Indian. For the average Indian, Modi "teaching Pakistan a lesson" is no less important than Hindu gods decimating demons, a narrative Indians grow up reading in Hindu scriptures and watching in TV series. Good versus evil is always the dominating theme in the popular culture and by giving a free hand to armed forces to hit at Pakistan, Modi has done something no prime minister dared to do. The strikes have satisfied the consience of Indians and fullfilled their desire to punish the Muslim neighbour.
Bread-butter Vs Balakot
In the last one week, I have interacted with a cross section of people in Uttar Pradesh -- journalists, workers, party leaders and academics. Most agree that the strikes on Pakistan's Balakot has changed the narrative decisively in favour of Modi and his support base, which had shrunk in the last four years and ten months, is recovering fast. "An agrarian expert who recently toured several districts of UP said that Modi has earned back the support of rurual population after Balakot," a leader of Samajwadi Party told me. They are praising Modi for two things -- hitting Pakistan and rallying diplomatic support to force Pakistan to return the Indian pilot.
I can't be sure that this is the dominant view among all sections of the society but Modi's decision to hit Pakistan has definitely given a collective adrenaline rush to his supporters who love aggressive nationalism. They are willing to endure unemployment, farm distress and even willing to close an eye on corruption as long as Pakistan is taught a lesson.
The Modi edge
Till a weeks ago, it was widely believed that BJP will suffer in states where the Congress performed well in state elections late last year. Today, in Rajsthan, Madhya Pardesh and Chattisgarh, the BJP has a clear edge and the recent electoral gains by the Congress party are unlikely to dent Modi's support base in these heartland states, senior editors based in Bhopal and Jaipur told me over the phone.
But the state that will decide if Modi gets a second term is Uttar Pradesh where his party got 71 out of the 274 seats it won from all over the country. Therefore, winning most seats from here is critical for Modi's re-election. Two arch rivals, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, have joined hands to mount a formidable challenge against Modi. While both the parties have strong support base among backward and Dalit voters in addition to an impressive army of committed cadres, their regional character is a big handicap. Today's politically aware vote is consicious that only a party with pan-India presence has the ability to govern India and thwart external challenges. The Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party have kept Congress out of their alliance, a failure all the three parties blame on each other. Meanwhile, the electorates, who are looking for an alternative to Modi, are confused and demoralised due to the opposition's failure to unitedly fight the BJP.
As things stand today in Uttar Pradesh, Modi's BJP appears to be making a comeback with a reduced majority. The opposition parties will gain ground here and other states but they are unlikey to be in a a position to stop the Modi juggernaut.