Where is the new path?

Modi Has No Opponent

By Shivaji Sarkar

An election is not just about formation of government. Instead it is about aspirations, policies, performance and embarking on a new path. The discourse on Lok Sabha 2019 voting sadly lacks the discussion that had marked some of the significant previous campaigns such as 1971, 1977, 1984, 1989, 1996, 1998, 1999 or 2014. The people made epoch decisions.
To some extent, 1991 polls were on similar lines, but the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi changed the narrative. Government stability and the yearning for a new economy following a severe forex crisis was anchoring the discussion at political meets, following failure of a short period of instability caused by the Mandal social engineering of Vishwanath Pratap Singh, who rode to the crest in the wake of Bofors brouhaha and Chandrashekhar, heading a short-term government, pawning India’s gold to Bank of England.
It was a kind of repetition after the failure of Janata Party experimentation in 1980. The coalition crumbled as an ambitious Charan Singh broke away to form a government with his arch rival Indira Gandhi’s Congress, which withdrew the support in a couple of days.
The 1980 polls were also about policy paralysis because except unseating Indira Gandhi, restoring the freedom of expression and the foreign minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s move to improve ties with Pakistan, the Janata Party regime could do little on people’s expectations on the economic front.
In the post-1980 poll, people found the Congress was closer to the ideologies of the erstwhile Jan Sangh, now re-emerging as Bharatiya Janata Party. Supposedly, socialist Indira Gandhi started the process of liberalisation and opening up to private capital, something she was found to abhor a decade earlier.
But the period of uncertainty in 1996, 1998 and 1999 saw continuity of policies and debate on how these could be sharpened. Three different shades of government in three years, first two with Congress support, did not dither from previous Congress Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao’s policy of liberalisation, globalisation, views on WTO, and rebuilding a national economy more with private capital.
But the public sector despite divestment by NDA-I continued to anchor the economy. The debates also led to strengthening of Navaratna public sector companies. After a decade-long Congress-led UPA rule, 2014 polls were of concerns of its failures, supposed scams and jobless growth.
The five years of BJP-led government under Narendra Modi has created a perception of probity and cleanliness, a vision propounded by LK Advani-led BJP in 1996. It anchored the subsequent 1998 and 1999 polls as well. The virulent campaign in these two polls again were on the issues of stability but obliquely gave two former Prime Ministers HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral of the United Front a clean chit on probity.
A new era had ushered. The UF and subsequent Atal Behari Vajpayee-led BJP government changed the polity, politics and economy. These were the happy periods for the people as prices stabilised, economy started growing and a long-standing solidity marked the country. Technological nationalism, following the 1998 nuclear device test at Pokharan, filled the emotions, though the government overtly did not promote it.
Post 2014, people’s aspirations grew. They found a dynamic person in Narendra Modi as Prime Minister and he dominates the national consciousness in 2019. It’s a phenomenon that even Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi did not have. They had many stalwarts to contest within and outside the Congress.
There is a perception that Modi’s vote base is intact. While his critics accept this they say since he has overshadowed the BJP, it is now more a “personal loyalty” and number of supporters have “moved away from the party.” Even Congressmen agree with it in many conversations. Despite this, as one moves around, one finds a large section of the electorate perceiving him as strong, honest, decisive and having delivered on national security and rural and farmer’s welfare, as a true leader. They don’t like demonetisation and many facets of GST, but don’t fault him for such “surgical strikes”. The people see these as honest moves which may not have succeeded.
This poll process sees across the nation, including critical West Bengal and Orissa, Modi as the only emerging leader against a maverick Mamata Banerjee or cool Naveen Patnaik. In public discourse, or Opposition attacks, the BJP has taken a back seat and Modi is the party’s face.
This is significant. He is loved, is abhorred, perhaps feared at times but he is at centre stage, though he speaks less of the economy despite charting out his programmes at times to prop up his chant of ‘nationalism’. Whether people agree or not, he does exude hope. Why, is a question even his staunch supporters are unable to explain? He is domineering, is the nation’s leader and his opponents are not worth a count in people’s perception.
The phenomenon is unique. But BJP per se has to counter the tall figure against weak local candidates, many of whom are unknown. Many incumbent MPs are unpopular. The BJP changed many names. Local issues dominate. Many opponents are formidable. The asset is Modi, but lack of a pan-national issue except him, may cause pockets of whirlwind.
Another equaliser is the coalition syndrome on both sides. Modi-BJP has alliances in Assam, Bihar, Maharashtra, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. Opponents or ‘Mahamilavat’ as Modi calls the Mahagathbandhan of SP-BSP-RLD in UP, are not an easy force though overawed by Modi. Bihar is incarcerated with Laloo Yadav affecting his RLD-Cong alliance.
It is not that fine as it looks. The election is more regional, be it in TN, Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra or J&K. Regional parties like AIADMK, DMK, TDP, TRS, YSR Congress, are making strides. Each State is having a different election, including in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. And thus Modi has changed his tack in every State.
Good. But personality-oriented politics is missing on policies. The country has not found a solution to joblessness, agrarian crisis, economic stagnancy or US belligerence on sanctions and shutting its doors on Indian exports. The Opposition lacks the acumen to raise these.
Populist doles, now in cash, dominate the scenario. Nobody debates whether India is heading for a revenue crisis or should it have high taxes and tolls or strong or weak public sector. Think tanks are missing. The next government will be saddled but sans policy prescription. Where is the new path? That is a challenge and a major concern.—INFA