In this year’s election, the Central issue is PM Modi. In many respects, the election is turning out to be a referendum on him. People either like what they have seen of him over the past five years or they dislike him. I have hardly met anyone who is ambivalent in their perception of Modi. Rahul Gandhi has been trying to make his presence felt all over India and attempting to revive the Congress organisation on the strength of his leadership. But he still has a very long way to go. The 2019 election will not be a Modi versus Rahul contest
Over the past fortnight or so, I have been camping in West Bengal for the elections. The campaign has taken me to countless small town that, in the normal course, I wouldn’t visit. I have spoken at small, middle-class gatherings and addressed people whose principal experience has been life in small towns, far away from the metropolis.
For me at least this is a new experience. During earlier elections I have operated from the campaign headquarters where you get a bird’s eye view of the campaign and where the media narrative matters a lot. In 2004, I accompanied LK Advani on his Bharat Uday Yatra that began from Kanyakumari and, after crisscrossing much of India (except West Bengal and the North-East), concluded in Puri, the famous temple town of Odisha. That journey, exhausting as it was, gave me a wonderful idea of the different political cultures in India. However, since the campaign involved brief stops at meeting venues and night halts, there wasn’t much opportunity to come to grips with a State-level campaign. Of course, I have been involved in Assembly elections in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, but the dynamics of Assembly polls are so utterly different from Lok Sabha polls where the whole country serves as one unit.
My experience tells me that the idea that a general election is shaped entirely by national issues is somewhat facile. National issues do play a very large part and invariably there is a surge in the number of votes polled by national parties during general elections. The Karnataka experience of 1984 when Ramakrishna Hegde led the Janata Dal to a victory in the Assembly some three to four months after the Congress swept the board in the general election is often held up as an example of different voting patterns. In Odisha, Naveen Patnaik has always ensured that Lok Sabha and Assembly elections are held simultaneously because such a process has invariably favoured the regional party. In 2014, amid the so-called Modi wave, the Biju Janata Dal won 20 of the 21 seats. Indeed, where Assembly and Lok Sabha elections have been held simultaneously, the local results have by and large been replicated at the parliamentary level.
It would be fair to say that the principal interest of voters with modest incomes is local politics. Experience suggests that the most passionate electoral contests take place during panchayat and local body elections. That is the point at which there is an intersection between the State and citizens. Then comes the State Assembly polls which, increasingly, is becoming more and more centre on the chief ministerial candidates. In Odisha, Patnaik has always had a head start, as has Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. In the Gujarat elections of 2002, 2007 and 2012, it was the personality and record of Narendra Modi that dominated above all else.
In this year’s general election, the Central issue is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In many respects, the election is turning out to be a referendum on him. People either like what they have seen of him over the past five years or they dislike him. I have hardly met anyone who is ambivalent in their perception of Modi. Rahul Gandhi has been trying to make his presence felt all over India and attempting to revive the Congress organisation on the strength of his leadership. But he still has a very long way to go. The 2019 election will not be a Modi versus Rahul contest.
This polarisation around Modi poses a lot of problems for regional parties, especially those parties that are not ruling. Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav have tried to circumvent the problem by forming a mahgathbandhan and presenting themselves as challengers for the Masani of Delhi. Yet, even they have carefully hedged the question of who will lead any alternative Government in Delhi. The mahagathbandhan may be able to unite the Muslim and Dalit voters but they have left the field open to Modi among other castes. It is my belief that the votes polled by the mahagathbandhan will be less than what they had together polled in 2014 and the Assembly elections of 2017. However, in Tamil Nadu, the inability of the AIADMK to resolve the post-Jayalalithaa succession will probably mean that the UPA will have a decisive advantage over the NDA in the election, Modi notwithstanding. Indeed, unless the NDA succeeds in clawing a few seats, it will drag the NDA down nationally.
In this context West Bengal presents an interesting case. The big change since 2014 is that the Left has become even more marginalised and the BJP has assumed the role of the principal Opposition. However, the symbolic popularity of the BJP far exceeds the organisational infrastructure of the party. This implies that unless there is an almighty Modi wave, the Trinamool starts with a clear advantage. National politics, is however, Mamata Banerjee’s real handicap and she has been struggling to express to develop a coherent narrative on alliances. However, by making Modi the main issue she has put the focus on national politics. This should have served the local BJP but instead it has chosen to make Mamata’s track record in Bengal the central issue. It is this curious reversal of roles that will play out. It will also test whether politics in the States are governed by local impulses or national concerns. The fight will be quite riveting.
Certainly, from the perspective of Kolkata, Delhi seems a very long way removed.