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Diverse Issues, Local Concerns and Fatigue with Modi Govt Dominate Discourse as India Votes 

The biggest phase, voting for 102 Lok Sabha seats, as well as for two state assemblies in an unprecedented seven-phase long schedule is underway. While the BJP and Modi are battling ten years of incumbency, unemployment and price rise, the Opposition is struggling to beat the resource mismatch.
Voting in J&K on April 19, 2024. Photo: X@ECISVEEP

New Delhi: As much as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would like to stage its ‘victory’ in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls as predestined, with relentless canvassing around Ram, Rashtra, and Suraksha, one can hear diverse voices on the ground that reflects a sense of fatigue with the Narendra Modi government – a sentiment that can be characterised as the 10-year itch.

The BJP has brandished the popular prime minister to successfully parry people’s deep worries about steep price rise, rising unemployment, stagnated incomes, and palpable inequality, yet the concerns have remained, even if buried. ‘Brand Modi’ was and still is the biggest driving factor for the BJP; its manifesto, promises, achievements, leaders, policies, and even its ideology are subservient to the Modi monolith.

As 102 constituencies across 21 states vote in the first of the seven phases of the two-month-long Lok Sabha polls, both the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance and the Congress-led Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) have placed their cards upfront.

The BJP has attempted to stoke people’s aspirations by promising a ‘Viksit Bharat’ by 2047, while the opposition has made the electoral battle about ‘saving democracy’ as its broad narrative to speak about the Modi government’s attempts to forcefully control government institutions, legalise corruption through electoral bonds, and implicate opposition leaders in false cases.

If the prime minister has spoken about its achievements as merely a ‘trailer’ of what he could do in the future, the opposition has attacked his government for targeting opposition leaders through its central investigation agencies and denying it a level-playing field in elections, something a former EC, Ashok Lavasa, has pithily termed the level-playing field.

Also read: Six-Week Show Begins but the Charisma Has Gone

What about a level playing field?

The opposition’s claims are not just that. Days ahead of the elections, Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate, India’s central agency which probes financial crimes, in the liquor policy case. As he has been booked under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), a quick bail becomes almost impossible.

His arrest followed similar imprisonment of three top leaders of the Aam Aadmi Party, leaving the fledgling political party virtually headless during the election campaign. Most opposition leaders say that denying the Delhi chief minister and his ministers the right to lead their party in the Lok Sabha polls was the reason why the more lenient Prevention of Corruption Act, in which securing a bail was easier, was not invoked against the AAP leaders.

The ED arrested Bharat Rashtra Samithi leader K.Kavitha, too, in the same case under the PMLA. Another sitting chief minister and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader Hemant Soren was also arrested by the ED in February 2024 in a case related to illegal acquisition of 8.5 acre land.

Amidst such a deluge of the Centre’s aggressive moves, several bank accounts of the resource-strapped Congress were also frozen by the Income Tax department, restricting its ability to campaign. The principal opposition party received a notice that required it to pay over Rs 1,400 crore to the I-T department for a default of around Rs 14 lakh in the year 1993-94.

All this, when the same ED quietly buried or closed cases against those opposition leaders who switched over to the BJP. The need to hollow out opposition ahead of the polls signals a sense of inconfidence in Modi, or may just be his way to plug possible leaks when his party’s boat is riding high. Yet, the series of unprovoked assaults on the opposition may have exposed to the public his authoritarian impulses.

In almost every poll speech, Modi has spoken about the INDIA bloc as a union of corrupt dynasts, while steering the electoral discourse towards Ram and Rashtra with visible communal undertones – and in the process, forcing the opposition to replace its political concerns like demand for a caste census, better healthcare and education or quality welfare programmes like NYAY with appeals for “saving democracy”.

The Congress showed in its manifesto that it can still have a political agenda that is substantively different from the BJP’s single-minded focus on corporate-led development and short-term doles for the poor. But its leadership concerns and struggles to communicate its vision have only amplified its problems amid incessant strikes by the Modi government.

Much of this year has gone by with the BJP stamping Hindutva on all election talk. The Ram temple in Ayodhya has dominated not only its political positioning but also reportage in the media. With the prime minister consistently invoking the Hindu faith as the primary vote-catching measure, the relevant material concerns of the people have been sidelined.

Such was the manufactured hype around the Ram Temple – perceived by Indian Muslims and secular-minded citizens as a deliberate offensive – that even those hefty corporate donations to the BJP through electoral bonds struggled to make an impact. The saffron party received nearly 50% of the total donations through those opaque bonds in possibly a quid pro quo arrangement with big companies, something that even the Supreme Court pointed out while banning them, but the big media refused to discuss and debate the critical issue. In any other country, the issue would have automatically assumed great significance but not in the BJP’s naya bharat where transparency is viewed with contempt.

Also read: Day Ahead of Polls, BJP Makes Direct Appeal to Religion in ‘Power of One Vote’ Post Showing Ram Idol

BJP faces tough challenges

Nonetheless, even in such a lopsided field, the BJP faces a set of challenges while aspiring for a third consecutive term at the Centre. One, its prospects appear to be saturated in the north-Indian states where its strike rate was near perfect in the 2019 polls, which explains the last-minute efforts to stitch new alliances and prime minister’s multiple trips to India’s east and the south where the BJP hopes to gain and make up for possible losses in the north.

Two, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, Bihar, and Haryana have emerged as battleground states where Congress is posing a great challenge to the BJP. Losses in these states are likely to bring down the BJP’s tally by a good margin. The Congress-led INDIA coalition, on the other hand, hopes to outdo the BJP here to increase its numbers, and possibly prevent yet another term for Modi sarkar.

Three, the BJP senses a fair degree of fatigue against its two terms at the Centre, and high resentment against its MPs on the ground. Thus, it has looked to replace its candidates in many seats, while consolidating its campaign around “Brand Modi” and his guarantees.

Opposition’s uphill journey

The opposition, too, faces a Herculean task in its efforts to dislodge the BJP. For one, it needs to substantially increase its vote share, by at least 6-7%, to improve its strike rate, given the fact that BJP had won 224 seats in 2019 Lok Sabha polls with over 50% votes. The saffron party won 236 seats with a margin of over two lakh votes. A majority of these seats are those where the BJP and the Congress are placed in a direct contest with each other. Much of the INDIA bloc’s fate, therefore, rests on the grand old party’s shoulders.

The INDIA bloc still lacks a compelling political narrative that also offers a credible alternative vision – something that the Congress has already done in its manifesto. It surely has to talk beyond its criticisms of the Modi government, and quickly amplify its efforts to break the formidable social coalition of the BJP in its favour. The INDIA allies also need to coordinate better with each other and communicate in one voice. With a little over a month still remaining, the INDIA bloc will have to run a much more focussed campaign. It needs to defeat the BJP’s TINA (there is no alternative) campaign on the ground to begin with, before it could think of battling the sophisticated election machinery of the saffron party.

The opposition’s failure to bring out people’s real concerns like price rise or unemployment vigorously and INDIA bloc’s struggles to emerge as a credible challenger to the BJP has led to a scenario where the Lok Sabha polls is being perceived as lacklustre. Such an impression has only become more deep-rooted amidst BJP’s trumpeting its own achievements, even when the electorate wants greater accountability from the Modi government.

Also read: #Innumbers: First Phase of Polling Is On

Questions over credibility of India’s elections?

Adding to such concerns, a sizeable section of the electorate has also cast doubts on the fairness of the electronic voting machines, with practically zero efforts by the Election Commission of India to dispel such a notion. The ECI has either dismissed or chosen to ignore all such doubts, despite the fact that a majority of the voters constantly tell you that EVMs aren’t trustworthy.

The general elections for the 18th Lok Sabha is being held against such a skewed political backdrop. However, as political scientist Yogendra Yadav pointed out in a recent article, Modi’s appeal is beginning to wane, that “his presence is no longer enough to brush every other issue under the carpet”.

“Everyone says ‘aayega to Modi hi’ – some with a drumroll, many with despair,” wrote Yadav after travelling around 1,500 kilometres across the poll-bound India. But he pointed out in a conversation with The Wire that this ‘prediction’ is often completely at odds with their individual choices they express, a disconnect with the voter he has not encountered before in his journey as a psephologist and then as a political worker. One can only hope that the Lok Sabha polls being held under the shadows of such despondency could force our political representatives to take up people’s long-suppressed issues.

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