Herald View: The audacity of hope

Amidst a bedraggled state of Indian democracy, can we have the audacity to hope that Indians can win back their democracy again? Maybe this is the election that will mark the beginning of that process

Voters queue up outside a polling booth in UP's Dadri in the 2nd phase of Lok Sabha elections, 26 April 2024. (Photo: Vipin/ National Herald)
Voters queue up outside a polling booth in UP's Dadri in the 2nd phase of Lok Sabha elections, 26 April 2024. (Photo: Vipin/ National Herald)

Herald View

The title and sub-title of former US president Barack Obama’s 2006 tome seem a rather fitting way to express the sentiment at this point on ‘reclaiming the Indian dream’. At the time of writing, campaigning had just ended for Phase 2 (voting on 26 April) of a seven-phase election marathon over 45 days, and there were enough straws in the wind to indicate a possible change in its direction.

Barely weeks ago or, to be more precise, before the first phase of election on 19 April, most pundits were expecting a very lopsided contest. With good reason too, but their slant projections contained dollops of fear and awe of the BJP’s famed election machinery and a reasonable, if cynical, assessment of the Opposition’s ability to push back.

In his speech addressing the Democratic National Convention of 2004, Obama said: “In the end, that’s what this election is about (not his own, which was five years later, but the 2004 US presidential, with George Bush Jr and John Kerry in the fray). Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?”

In 2006, Obama released The Audacity of Hope, a book-length account that expanded on the themes he had originally addressed in the convention speech. The title was derived from a sermon delivered by Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

Wright, in turn, had attended a lecture in the late 1980s on the G.F. Watts painting titled Hope, which inspired his sermon, in which he said: “…with her clothes in rags, her body scarred and bruised and bleeding, her harp all but destroyed and with only one string left, she had the audacity to make music and praise God... To take the one string you have left and to have the audacity to hope...” (emphasis added).

The words of the sermon seem uncannily apt in the current Indian context; they seem to paint a picture of the bedraggled state of Indian democracy and lend context to our audacity to hope that Indians can win back their democracy again. Maybe this is the election that will mark the beginning of that process.

A CSDS-Lokniti survey, released in the first week of April, had indicated a 5 per cent gap between the BJP-led NDA formation and the Congress-led INDIA bloc. There are reasons to believe the gap has narrowed.

Twenty years ago, in 2004, the ruling NDA under Atal Bihari Vajpayee had the benefit of a much wider perception gap, with 48 per cent apparently ready to vote for it again. In 2024, according to the Lokniti survey, Modi has the support of 44 per cent.

Few saw the tide turn in 2004. Or expected the BJP’s ‘India Shining’ campaign to blow up in its face. In the din of today’s media propaganda, it’s harder to register the murmurs on the ground, the disaffection among the people, but it does exist.

Even if Modi’s cheerleaders refuse to give any play to signals that not all is hunky-dory for the BJP in this election. Despite this relentless propaganda, the two-faced attempts to simultaneously claim civilisational (Hindu) greatness and (Hindu) victimhood, it seems the wave the BJP was hoping to create with its triumphal ‘char sau paar’ (400-plus seats) assertions may have had the ‘India Shining’ effect.

It’s plausible that the people of this country, if not those still besotted with Modi then certainly the rest, have begun to ask questions. It’s hard to tell at this stage how potent the popular disenchantment is, but it does exist.

Enough people, even in the Hindi heartland of the North, seem to have had it with Modi’s endless promises and grandstanding, his election-time jumlas and his ‘mangalsutra’ rabble-rousing.

The youth are clamouring for jobs, they seem to have registered that this government, far from creating new government jobs, is in effect annulling existing jobs by not filling vacancies and misleading them with short-term contracts (like the Agnipath scheme for the Services) with no retirement or other benefits.

The women are complaining about the mehngai, that their household expenses have gone through the roof and that the government’s highly advertised Ujjwala scheme for cooking gas was a non-starter because they simply couldn’t afford refill cylinders; UP’s poor ‘pasmanda’ Muslims know there’s no love lost between them and the BJP, whose short-lived affair with them was mainly to drive a wedge between them and socially well-off (‘ashraaf’) Muslims; the Dalits likewise see why it was folly to ever think of the BJP as their benefactors.

It’s possible the people have a sense of being taken for granted, and it’s plausible they will vote with their feet in this election. Or maybe we shouldn’t hold our breath.

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