In the end, it turned out to be a no-contest. Before the votes were counted, many people, including this writer, believed that even though Narendra Modi was sure to return as Prime Minister, he would do so with far smaller numbers than he had won in 2014, and would therefore require additional support from new allies. His National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would hence become NDA+ with the inclusion of Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, KCR in Telangana and - why not? - even Mayawati in UP. After all, hadn't Modi tried to wean away the BSP to his side during the campaign, affirming that the BSP-SP Mahagathbandhan would come apart on May 23?
In the end, far from falling behind his 2014 score of 282, which was a historic record at the time, Modi's BJP succeeded in climbing the new psychologically significant summit of 300 seats in the 17th Lok Sabha. I was in the NDTV studio the whole day on May 23, and heard a fellow panelist objecting to another's description of this phenomenon as a 'NaMo tsunami' - "Don't call it a tsunami. Tsunamis are destructive. They leave a trail of devastation behind." But, metaphorically, isn't that what has happened to the Congress and other anti-BJP parties in this election?
Being the only other national party, the Congress has received a blow which is, in both political and psychological terms, far worse than the one five years ago. For a party that has governed India for the longest period of time since Independence, winning only 44 seats, in a Lok Sabha of 543 members, was humiliating in 2014. But after full five years of preparation to energise itself and take on Modi, it has failed to add even ten more seats to its worst-ever tally. Yes, many Congress supporters, including this writer, were hoping that the party, under Rahul Gandhi's youthful and determined leadership, would cross three figures. No. It has, in fact, won zero seats in as many as 17 out of India's 29 states - and touched the double figure in none of them.
Why did this happen?
To understand this, let us turn to the headline − "If NDA falls short, Congress ready with a three-step plan" − of a front-page report in The Indian Express of May 23. The plan was (a) to form a new alliance of all opposition parties with a new name ('Secular Democratic Front'); (b) to send a letter with signatures of all constituents of the front to President Ram Nath Kovind informing him about the new alliance and staking claim for formation of the government; and (c) sending a second letter, late at night, to the Rashtrapati informing him about the leader of the new front.
Apparently, the Congress and its key allies (Chandrababu Naidu and Sharad Pawar) had succeeded in convincing other important anti-BJP leaders such as Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav (both of whom were expected to win nearly 50 seats in UP), Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal, and even Patnaik, Reddy and KCR, of joining the new front. However, the thought that assailed my mind when I read this report (before counting had begun) must have crossed millions of other minds in the country - Why has this wisdom about the need for opposition unity dawned on Congress and other non-NDA leaders so late in the election season?
Didn't they know that Modi was doing everything possible to convert the parliamentary election into a high-voltage and no-holds-barred presidential-style election? Didn't they hear him tell the voters, in state after state, that each of their votes for any BJP or NDA candidate was not a vote for that candidate or that party but "a vote for Modi"? Were they unaware of the question uppermost in the minds of many voters - "Modi nahin toh kaun?" (If not Modi, who?) Had they paid no attention at all to BJP president Amit Shah's sharp barb about how the opposition, if at all it succeeded in forming the government, would have one PM on Monday, another on Tuesday, yet another on Wednesday...and so on?
Obviously, the Congress and other anti-BJP parties knew all this, and yet were simply unable and unwilling to do what they finally, and wisely, decided to do a day before May 23. 'Secular Democratic Front' as a new UPA-plus alliance was a good idea. But why didn't they form it in December 2018, soon after the Congress won morale-boosting victories against the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh? Why didn't they come up with a common minimum programme? Why didn't they hold joint rallies in all the states, of the kind that Mamata Banerjee organised in Kolkata on January 19? Above all, why didn't they agree to project a common Prime Ministerial candidate as an alternative to Modi?
Far from doing all this, the opposition did exactly the opposite. Voters, including those who were disenchanted with Modi's performance in the past five years, saw that the Congress and Trinamool Congress were fighting against each other in Bengal; the Congress and BSP-SP alliance were pitted against each other in UP; the seemingly endless talks for alliance or seat-sharing between Congress and AAP in Delhi finally collapsed, which led to both parties getting punished in the national capital as well as in Haryana; the alliance between the Congress and JD(S) in Karnataka was a total mis-alliance.
Of course, there were other reasons for Modi's stupendous victory and the decimation of the opposition. The BJP successfully polarised the voters on communal lines and consolidated its Hindu votebank. What has helped the party in this effort is its clever conflation of Hindutva, national security and Indian nationalism.
With the terror attack at CRPF jawans in Pulwama on February 14, and the "Surgical Strike 2.0" on Balakot in Pakistan twelve days later, the mood of the voters across India underwent a major change. Here is some anecdotal proof. A very poor man I met on the streets of Lucknow in April said to me, "If Pulwama had not happened, the same wave that brought victory to Modi in 2014 would have defeated him in 2019. But the situation has changed now."
Of course, in changing the mood of the people, Modi adroitly politicised the action of the Armed Forces to his own electoral advantage. "Pakistan ke ghar mein ghus kar maara" (we hit Pakistan deep inside its own territory) became a muscular narrative that further boosted Modi's image as a strong and decisive leader.
In contrast, the Congress campaign failed to leave a mark on the voters. Apart from its dismal failure to present itself, or a UPA+ alliance as an alternative to Modi, it committed other blunders. Although Rahul Gandhi himself came across as a significantly transformed leader, his 'Chowkidar Chor Hai' slogan against Modi did not stick. His promise of NYAY (minimum income guarantee scheme) was both innovative and inspiring. But the Congress party's grassroots organisation has become so atrophied that the promise did not reach much of the target audience. And let's not forget that its weak organisation stood in stark contrast to the well-oiled booth-level machinery that Amit Shah, with the help of the entire Sangh Parivar, had created to ensure success of his slogan - "Ab ki baar, 300 paar"(This time, BJP shall cross 300). Let's also not forget that there was simply no comparison between the financial resources available to the BJP and its rivals. Last but not the least, the Election Commission, to its abiding disgrace, chose to help the BJP and Modi in important ways.
One hopes that the Congress party at least now wakes up to the imperative need to build strong and enduring alliances, while at the same time focusing on the very difficult task of rebuilding itself ideologically, organisationally, and in ways to win the hearts and minds of people belonging to all sections of our diverse society. Without the Congress' revival, India's democracy will be in danger.
(The writer was an aide to India's former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.)
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