Herald View: A time to hope, a time to fear

In case anyone missed it, the BJP is contesting the 2024 Lok Sabha polls not as a bid to return to power but for ‘Modi’s guarantee’

In 2014, Narendra Modi mounted his bid to power in Delhi on the back of his reputation as a doer (photo: PTI)
In 2014, Narendra Modi mounted his bid to power in Delhi on the back of his reputation as a doer (photo: PTI)

Herald View

Voters now in their thirties will probably remember the electoral storm that blew over India in 2014. Those older will have a deeper context. Every national election is arguably different, but the 2014 and 2019 editions marked some important departures from the past. For one, they rang down the curtain on an era of coalition politics in India.

In 2014, Narendra Modi mounted his bid to power in Delhi on the back of his reputation as a doer during his long stint as Gujarat chief minister between 2001 and 2014. For fence-sitters at the time, enamoured of his go-getting reputation, the Gujarat riots of 2002 and its ‘management’ by Modi’s state government, were discomfiting but they were still willing to “give Modi a chance”.

His doer reputation — also largely a media creation — was in some ways the springboard for his ambition to recast the parliamentary election into a presidential-style gladiatorial contest, projecting himself as the strongman with a laser focus on getting things done.

The Sangh parivar saw both promise and purchase in the strategy. The capture of institutions over time, including most importantly the capture of the mainstream media narrative, cemented this strategy. The monstrous, overpowering influence of social media has coincided with Modi’s reign and the BJP has been quick to learn how to maximise its reach and influence among the people. For that reason alone, Amit Malviya, the national convenor of the BJP’s IT cell, is an important cog in the party’s propaganda wheel.

Going into these elections, the collective wisdom of the BJP/ Sangh propaganda machinery was that the time had come to go to the people to elect a monarch. In case anyone missed it, the ruling party is contesting the 2024 Lok Sabha polls not as the BJP’s bid to return to power but a vote for ‘Modi’s guarantee’ that ‘better things are in store’.

That guarantee is supposedly worth its weight in gold in the popular imagination. The promise of better days ahead is, of course, loaded, a code for all sorts of things — it’s a wet dream for swathes of the country that want the dawn of a Hindu Rashtra, and it’s a nightmare for others, who desperately want to shake off that very real prospect if the BJP returns to power, legitimately or otherwise.

To track back briefly, 2014 was a watershed election that gave the BJP a majority on its own — the first time for any party in 30 years since 1984. Even in that epochal election, though, the BJP, with 282 seats, went only slightly past the simple majority mark of 272.

The general election in 2019 was again an unusual one with the BJP and prime minister Modi converting the Pulwama terror attack — a huge blot on the government and a glaring security failure — into a campaign showcasing the Modi government’s muscular response to foreign/ Pakistani aggression, through the expedient of a token air strike inside Pakistan.

When, in fact, even the strike (in Balakot) was botched, resulting in the tragic loss of a pilot and a fighter plane inside Pakistan and a helicopter and six personnel, shot down by mistake inside Indian territory. Nevertheless, the ‘ghar mein ghus ke maara’ rhetoric generated a patriotic frenzy that secured the BJP a record 303 seats and the NDA 353 seats in the Lok Sabha, giving the government a free pass in the lower House to do what it desired.

How different is the ongoing election? The BJP should have found itself in a sweet spot, having hurriedly and somewhat clumsily gone through with the consecration of the Ram Mandir and with Central agencies going on a rampage against the Opposition.

Putting Opposition leaders in jail, freezing the bank accounts of the principal Opposition party, intimidating Opposition leaders to defect or else, welcoming defectors from everywhere and fielding the probable winners among them as BJP candidates should have put it in an unassailable position.

With more men, muscle and money than all the Opposition put together — and by doing its damnedest to strangulate any resistance — the BJP should have found it easy to win this time too. Barely weeks ago, ‘400 paar’ was made to look like a cinch, but with voting done and dusted for 381 (of 543) seats at the time of writing, there are indications that a different outcome is possible.

It is apparently visible on the ground, in the North as much as the South, in the East as well as the West. The arrogance of the BJP, its inability to convincingly address everyday issues of unemployment and inflation, the yawning gulf between people’s lived experience and ‘Modi’s guarantees’, the veiled threats to rewrite the Constitution and a motley assortment of local issues are apparently creating a perceptible draught against the BJP.

A threatened breed of independent analysts — seen mostly on YouTube, for reasons well known but best set aside for now — are predicting that the BJP, even the NDA, will fall short. Yet there are hushed whispers even among those who see a different outcome on the horizon that if 4 June does see a mandate for change, the current regime will resist a peaceful transfer of power. Be afraid!

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