Reflections of a conspiracy theorist: Lok Sabha elections 2019: Fair and Lovely?

Is it just a coincidence that every leader who walked out of the NDA faced a humiliating defeat? Is this possible in a fair election? Questioning the ‘popular’ mandate for Modi

Voters in the queue to cast their votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Voters in the queue to cast their votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Faraz Ahmad

Was it John F Kennedy who said, “Victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan”? Whoever may have said it, it is apt for the opposition in India today after the general election to constitute the 17th Lok Sabha.

Even those who were betting on a hung house till the other day and deriding Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his comrade-in-arms the BJP president and now the Union Home Minister Amit Shah, are suddenly commending them for their brilliant strategy in decimating the opposition. They are convinced that people of India have given an even bigger mandate to Modi in 2019 than in 2014.

The old betrayer BSP president Mayawati has broken the already tenuous alliance between SP+BSP+RLD, blaming the other two parties and more so Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party for her defeat in the elections. She had made no secret of her prime ministerial ambitions and the disappointment over the result must have hit her hard.

This notwithstanding the fact that only she and the BSP among all the Opposition parties in the Uttar Pradesh, emerged as the sole beneficiary of the alliance. In the 2014 general elections BSP had scored a duck and failed to win a single seat when she fought the elections alone. In the 2017 UP assembly elections again while the SP, which was facing anti-incumbency and was routed, won 47 assembly seats as against BJP’s 312, the BSP was restricted to a mere 19 in a 401 member House.

When every Opposition party in North India was mauled even more than in 2014, it is Mayawati alone whose 10 candidates from a single state reached the Lok Sabha this time. And yet she is complaining! Perhaps she is under pressure to dissociate from the alliance because all said and done, it is only Uttar Pradesh which slowed down the BJP juggernaut somewhat.

On the ground, except for known BJP apologists parading around as journalists and analysts, few predicted the kind of sweep that BJP eventually achieved in Uttar Pradesh. Almost every reporter from the ground for instance was making two points. One that the Mahagathbandhan was doing very well and two that there was no wave on the ground.

But towards the end when Amit Shah’s messengers started predicting over 300 seats, professional journalists who had gone around asking the man on the street the trend, and saw no BJP wave, suddenly started getting goosebumps and wondered aloud whether there was an undercurrent, which they had missed.

But this was a mere course correction by journalists seeing the results not visible on the ground. There is no doubt that the most modern and effective BJP propaganda machinery through embedded news channels, vast majority of digital media and also a significant section of print media in North India continued playing up Pulwama and Balakote air strike to aid the sagging morale of Modi to some extent.

But if this had created a wave far bigger than in 2014, when Modi was a novelty, it was nowhere quite evident.

On the contrary there were reports of marked lack of enthusiasm in Modi’s rallies and visuals of empty chairs in Amit Shah’s public meetings were aired even on the embedded TV news channels.

In Varanasi, Prime Minister Modi’s constituency, the wisdom on the street was that if only the opposition had put up a formidable candidate, it would have tied Modi down. Despite the extravagant road shows in Varanasi, the Kumbh, Pravasi Bharatiya Divas and an ever watchful Yogi Adityanath and his entire cabinet campaigning in the holy city, there was enough public uproar against demolition of several ancient temples.

Sadhus were holding demonstrations and were anxious to campaign against the PM. The anger was widespread and aired publicly when the Election Commission lost its marbles and in an act of blatant partisanship, rejected the nomination papers of the Samajwadi Party candidate and dismissed BSF jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav.

Yadav was dismissed from the Border Security Force (BSF) for video recording and airing on social media the poor quality of food jawans on the border, fighting for the country, were being served. The popular feeling was that the Election Commission had deliberately ensured no credible opposition to Modi in his constituency.

Public discussions aired on TV channels not only showed dissatisfied people criticising the Government’s acts of omission and commission, they also showed people accusing anchors of bias, not framing questions properly and for ignoring the critics of Modi and BJP in the audience. The protests did not appear to be stage managed. Video clips of several such altercations became viral on social media.

In Chandauli, not far from Modi’s constituency, PM’s favourite channel Times Now played a video that showed people complaining how BJP men went around inking their fingers and giving them a Rs 500 note each to prevent them from casting their votes. But the EC refused to take cognizance.

And yet they now say that the wave this time was bigger than 2014. How else could the BJP improve markedly its extraordinary tally of 282 to 303 in the 17th Lok Sabha, they argue while ignoring the fact that this figure was announced much in advance by the same Amit Shah whose public rallies were lackluster and were poorly attended. And yet he was confident BJP would bag more than 300 seats and he proved to be spot on. How?

After the election results were declared, several pundits have been coming up with different interpretations. Journalists, they say, overlooked the good work done by the Government and its pro-poor schemes. Ujjwala Yojana of giving the poor LPG cylinders at double the rate prevailing in 2014, they argue now, overwhelmed the women in the villages.

The cost of subsidised cylinders is turning out to be beyond the reach of the poor rural woman, apart from the logistical problem of transporting it personally from distant LPG dealer’s shop/godown. So it has only ornamental value in her kitchen while she is still cooking on firewood as demonstrated by India Today TV in Kanhaiya Kumar’s house in Begusarai. But we are being asked to suspend our disbelief and accept that grateful women voted overwhelmingly for the BJP.

Open Defecation Free villages, they say, have given rural women back their dignity and they no longer have to wait for darkness to walk to roads and railway tracks to do the business.

Reports that toilets had been built but were unusable because there was no water and no sewer pipeline, were apparently untrue. Also reports that rural folk did not have the resources to buy a second LPG cylinder and that toilets were being used for other purposes.

The pundits are making us believe that BJP and Modi’s popularity had not really peaked in 2014. That the Modi Government’s indifferent performance, the poor economy, joblessness, farm distress, the chronic and serial lies over data and pathetic attempts at whataboutery actually enhanced his popularity. They explain the result by claiming that a surge of nationalism after Pulwama terror attack and IAF’s air strike within Pakistan had pushed all other considerations aside.

Most voters, they say, in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar felt overwhelmingly that Narendra Modi had ‘saved’ the country from Pakistan! That they believed only a decisive PM could keep the country safe. While it is true that paid propagandists in the media and the BJP itself did keep up fear-mongering at a high level throughout the election campaign, reports that villagers in UP were cracking jokes at the air strike and describing it as ‘nautanki’ are now dismissed as over-the-top opposition propaganda.

Modi’s sops

So, let’s take up the so-called welfare schemes first. On February 1, while girding up loins for the polls, Piyush Goyal while presenting a vote on account offered a sop to the distressed farmers of Rs 6000 per annum and immediately sent across Rs 2000, the first instalment. The Opposition cried foul, but Goyal and Modi went ahead shrugging their shoulders. Cash for votes? Bribery? A Vote on Account could not have allowed recurrent expenditure of this nature?

The Government had already presented five budgets and could not possibly present a sixth budget in a five-year tenure? The questions were either not asked or were brushed aside. Farmers were presumably won over by the Rupees two or four thousand which were credited to their bank accounts just ahead of the election. But news reports now disclose that that amount was withdrawn by the banks from their accounts no sooner than it was credited and yet they say farmers were influenced by this sop.

The ‘Godi Media’ gleefully reported that the Prime minister had given instructions to bureaucrats to prepare for the first 100 days of the next Government. So confident was the Government of returning to power that plans were being put in motion even as the vituperative campaign continued.

On October 11, 2014 Modi launched the Saansad Adarsh Gramin Yojana (SAGY) whereby each MP was to adopt at least three villages in the five year tenure in their respective constituency and finance projects from his or her MPLAD scheme and supervise development work in his adopted village.

Modi himself adopted four, namely Jayapur, Nagepur, Kakarhia and later also Domri. Like all other MPs he too was entitled to Rs five crore each year under the MPLAD scheme for development work in his constituency. An RTI application in June 2018 established that the Prime Minister did not spend a single Rupee, repeat a single Rupee from his fund. But fawning corporates, banks, public sector units and private businessmen came forward to invest!

Communal Polarisation?

Many critics of Modi have blamed the result on the heightened communal rhetoric and polarisation. They may have a point, considering that elements like Pragya Singh Thakur, Ananth Kumar Hegde, Sanjeev Balyan and Sakshi Maharaj have romped home to sit in Parliament and decide the fate of the people of India under a Home Minister Amit Shah who described Muslim immigrants as ‘termites’ in his election speeches and promised to weed them out throughout the country through National Register for Citizens (NRC) currently snatching away citizenship rights from even Kargil war hero Mohammad Sanaullah in Assam.

As and when he has his way, and there are already reports that instructions have been given to extend the NRC to all districts in India, Modi critics, at least those from minority communities, may well meet the fate of Sanaullah and asked to produce documents to prove that their parents or grandparents were Indians. Or a family tree to establish that several generations have actually lived in this country.

Yet, it is difficult to conclude that the number of people swayed by the communal propaganda increased overwhelmingly this time. For if that were the case, it would have shown on the surface.

In 2014, this passionate affair with Modi was showing on the streets. I remember in the run up to the 2014 elections the BJP had parked a van in the busy Gautam Nagar market, next door to the Gulmohar Park colony, where I lived. Throughout that campaign the van remained parked relaying Modi’s public speeches live and a huge crowd collected around it all the time of day and night, in spite of the blistering summer heat.

That spectacle and novelty lost their appeal in the 2015 Delhi Assembly elections when there were no visible takers for the BJP and most of us rightly predicted a BJP rout. This time for all the empty chairs in Amit Shah meetings and poor unresponsive audience in Modi’s meetings, the votes went up phenomenally. How?

Rampur is an interesting case in point. This seat with a large Muslim population mostly sends up a Muslim to the Lok Sabha. Mohammad Azam Khan who won this seat has been getting elected to the state Assembly for decades as a Samajwadi Party leader.

Azam Khan, is known for giving provocative speeches, leading often to Hindu-Muslim polarisation as the BJP too as is its wont, puts up an equally provocative, reactive and communally charged candidate. This is the first time Azam Khan contested for the Lok Sabha.

In 2014, the seat went to the BJP’s Nepal Singh. At the height of communal polarisation on account of Babri Masjid agitation, the BJP had won Rampur for the first time. Then in 1998, BJP’s Shia Muslim face Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi won from Rampur, defying traditional standards of analysis. Meaning that while ordinarily this seat goes to a Muslim candidate, a wave defies this phenomenon and the BJP defied it three times, in 1991, 1998 and 2014. But this time despite all the attempts of BJP and its ally the Election Commission and lower courts, Azam Khan comfortably won from Rampur of all places.

Do we need to remind that Badruddin Ajmal in Assam and Asaduddin Owaisi, again provocative and polarising Muslim leaders, too had no problem winning their seats? They could not have won only with Muslim votes.

There are other Muslim candidates like Afzal Ansari who won from Ghazipur and Kunwar Danish Ali, who on his maiden attempt won from Amroha on BSP ticket. How did these Muslim leaders defy the overwhelming communal mood which supposedly increased Modi’s votes, percentage and seats in Uttar Pradesh?

All the three UP seats mentioned above had gone to the BJP in 2014 in a Modi wave.

Neither Azam Khan, nor Danish Ali whose Amroha constituency comprise nearly 60 per cent Hindu voters and least of all Afzal Ansari could have won on Muslim votes alone. The 2011 Census shows that Hindus comprised 89.32 per cent of the population in Ghazipur and Muslims only 10.17 per cent.

Of all the people he defeated sitting union minister and BJP leader Manoj Sinha projected at one time as a front runner for the post of Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Similarly, Azam Khan defeated Jaya Prada who had won from Rampur on Samajwadi ticket a couple of times. Jaya was capable of winning over a good section of starry-eyed youth from the Muslim community as well, yet Azam Khan succeeded in defeating her by a wide margin.

Veteran journalist Neena Vyas pointed out that these leaders could defy the ‘Modi/EC wave because they had sufficient and effective muscle power and organisational strength to protect their turf from the machinations and manipulations of the Election Commission, a declared ally of Modi.

The Quint among other media reported the serious mismatch between votes polled and the votes counted in as many as 373 Lok Sabha constituencies, where polling had been completed till the fourth phase. In other words the number of people who actually cast their votes turned out to be considerably lower than the votes counted by the EVM machines. And this was only for the first four phases when elections were held for only 374 constituencies. What about the next three? Nobody knows, but we can make a guess.

Vyas makes another interesting point. She said that while we all know any number of people in our circle of helps, acquaintances, friends and relatives who were enamoured of Modi in 2014 and enthusiastically voted for him, we haven’t come across even one this time who had voted AGAINST Modi in 2014 but voted FOR him in 2019.

The same people who voted Modi in 2014 perhaps voted him back with greater vigour and enthusiasm, though we have friends and acquaintances who did vote Modi in 2014 but said they did not this time.

The 16th Lok Sabha had the lowest ever Muslim representation since the first general election in 1952, coming down to 22 Members in the Lok Sabha. But this time round it went up to 27, with five more Muslims entering the House, including one on BJP ticket from Bengal. Communal polarisation was indeed attempted by BJP-friendly news channels like Rajat Sharma’s India TV, Arnab Goswami’s Republic, or Navika Kumar’s Times Now and not to be left behind Sudhir Chowdhary of Zee News and even newspapers. But there is no evidence to prove that they did anything beyond converting the already converted.

Of course the Opposition also failed to play the game by the new set of rules necessary to compete with Modi/Shah duo, in spite of former Modi fans turning bitter critics since 2014. Like Arun Shourie pleading repeatedly for a direct contest of one is to one, meaning one common candidate of all the Opposition in each of the 544 constituencies, giving the bulk of the seats to the party which had greater influence in that particular region. And to project one PM candidate.

Significantly DMK leader M K Stalin made an effort by announcing Rahul Gandhi as the combined Opposition candidate for the post of PM. But there was no response nor any effort by others in the Opposition to take the cue and work for it, except to some extent jailed RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav.

It is not correct to say that Rahul Gandhi was not making the right noises. His slogan Chowkidar chor hai caught the people’s fancy and became popular nationally to the extent that Modi had to counter it by making all his bhakts and even closet critics like Sushma Swaraj say, “Main bhi chowkidar.”

Rahul Gandhi was also quite impressive in his interviews with pro-Modi journalists like Deepak Chaurasia unlike 2014 when he faltered before Arnab Goswami. He did not have the advantage of getting prepared questionnaires in advance like Modi and yet he not only faced the questions boldly and with good humour, winning over many of his erstwhile critics.

In the early stages of this election, BJP was so fearful of allies deserting the sinking ship that even an arrogant man like Amit Shah went all the way to Mumbai to smoothen Shiv Sena’s Udhav Thackeray’s feathers. In 2014, the BJP had won 22 seats in Bihar. Yet this time it contested only 17, dropping five sitting MPs. Ram Vilas Paswan did not contest, seeing an impending defeat, but he got six seats for his family members—the son and two younger brothers as well as his Samdhi along with one Muslim and all six won.

After polling in Jamui in the first phase, Paswan’s son Chirag complained that his election had been sabotaged. Everyone was convinced of his defeat. Yet he won. In the best of times Nitish’s Kurmi fiefdom does not go beyond two seats in Bihar, namely Barh and Nalanda. In 2014, too he succeeded in winning only two seats, but this time all the 17, who contested under JD-U ticket are in the Lok Sabha.

On the other hand, Lalu Prasad had to be politically finished so the RJD did not win a single seat. Shatrughan Sinha dared to defy Modi and lost badly to Ravi Shankar Prasad who was never popular in Patliputra. Kushwaha who broke from BJP and went over to Lalu was decimated so was Jitan Ram Manjhi.

One can understand there was some impact of Pulwama/Balakote, which would have cut the BJP’s losses, but to sweep all the 26 seats in Gujarat yet again, all the 25 seats in Rajasthan, leave only one seat for Kamal Nath’s son in Madhya Pradesh and humiliate even Jyotiraditya Scindia, who was spared last time, are beyond comprehension.

I passed through Mandi to Manali in the midst of these elections and I can say there was no evidence of the BJP candidate visible anywhere. All the banners, posters and buntings were for the Congress candidate, the grandson of Pandit Sukh Ram. So confident were the family of this victory that Sukh Ram’s son resigned his ministerial position in the BJP government to back his son. Yet the young man lost. It is noteworthy that every leader who walked out of the NDA was humiliated in defeat and made to bite the dust. Is this possible in a fair election?

The overriding Amit Shah message was “Jo hum se takrayega choor choor ho jayega”.

But they claim this election to have delivered a popular, decisive and magical mandate.

The article reflects the author’s opinion

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