Two stages of the election down and way too many to go. India's never-ending election campaign continues into the cauldron of summer. It's a bit strange that the extended general election schedule is moving at snail's pace while the media is covering it with manic minute-by-minute and tweet-by-tweet intensity. With under 200 seats having voted, in a rather balkanized manner, it is difficult to get a sense of the mood. The opinions of anchors and reporters tweeting their seat assessments based on 'feedback' or embargoed exit poll data is no better than soothsaying and a highly dishonest form of journalism. As I have been increasingly saying, when asked about the election, to borrow an Americanism, nobody knows nothing. General election results always throw up many surprises and this one is going to be no exception. We expected the campaign to be an amalgam of state-centric contests, as it has, and all we can say at the moment is that it is increasingly feeling like a very close-run result with no seat left uncontested.
So we may not have a clear national narrative yet but we do we have a plethora of smaller ones distributed all over the country from the last few days, which if we take together, may provide us with an approximation of clarity. I have found no better indicator of ground realities during an election than the behaviour of political leaders as they react to the vicissitudes of the campaign. Let's take a look at important occurrences in the campaign diary of the past few days and see what we can learn.
The sudden appearance of Pragya Thakur as BJP's candidate in Bhopal is front and centre, of course. I can see why the BJP thought she would be a suitable candidate for them but it still took me by surprise because it betrays a level of desperation from the ruling party that I had not sensed thus far. It has been widely reported that the BJP unsuccessfully offered the Bhopal seat to at least two other senior leaders, which is understandable because Digvijaya Singh, whatever his reputation in Delhi, is considered a formidable campaigner in the state. I imagine the BJP expected Digvijaya Singh and the Congress to take the bait and thus move the narrative towards Hindu/Saffron terror, but mercifully, for once, the Congress did not. So all the BJP was left with was fending off media questions about why they had parachuted a terror suspect, out on bail, into the election. The news went international and undermined the Modi Government's tough position on terrorism, especially in relation to Pakistan. Clearly it was a false move, resorting to a very narrow form of Hindutva that is likely to find resonance only amongst its hard-core supporters and put off all-important swing voters. Was the BJP spooked into playing to its base by the ebbing of the "Balakot Bounce" and sub-par feedback from first phase of polling? I could not possibly say.
Then came the income tax raid at the constituency residence of DMK's Kanimozhi in Tamil Nadu on the eve of polls. Nothing was found and 'sources' blamed the fiasco on a 'false tip'. I wonder how many 'false tips' lead to similar raids on BJP candidates? Zero is the answer. In any case, both Kanimozhi and DMK leader Stalin took full advantage of the ham-handed harassment, squeezing it for maximum voter sympathy in the interregnum after campaigning had officially ended.
In Delhi, the soap opera of the will-they-won't-they of AAP and Congress continues endlessly. I have no clue, but it would appear to a casual observer that the Congress has forgotten how to negotiate and AAP never bothered to learn. Not the best combination. The Twitter exchange initiated by Congress President Rahul Gandhi and instantly replied to by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was simply ludicrous. Restraint is called for. Time is running out for the two parties and Delhi's voters are watching.
कौन सा U-टर्न?अभी तो बातचीत चल रही थी— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) April 15, 2019
आपका ट्वीट दिखाता है कि गठबंधन आपकी इच्छा नहीं मात्र दिखावा है।मुझे दुःख है आप बयान बाज़ी कर रहे हैं
आज देश को मोदी-शाह के ख़तरे से बचाना अहं है।दुर्भाग्य कि आप UP और अन्य राज्यों में भी मोदी विरोधी वोट बाँट कर मोदी जी की मदद कर रहे हैं https://t.co/9jnYXJFA0S
Then we have the tale of Mr and Mrs Sinha in Lucknow. We were given to believe that part of the deal that involved Shatrughan Sinha being announced as the Congress candidate from Patna Sahib was that his wife would oppose Rajnath Singh in Lucknow on the Samajwadi Party ticket as the combined Opposition candidate. Apparently not. The night before Poonam Sinha joined the SP, the Congress released a list of candidates that included a candidate for Lucknow. Commentators began to point out the obvious: that as a newly-minted member of the Congress, Shotgun Sinha would not be able to campaign for his wife against his own party's candidate. Again, wrong. Bihari Babu was present in full splendour at his wife's road show and her nomination, unconcerned by party loyalty. The Uttar Pradesh Congress would be well-advised to beat a hasty retreat.
But lest you think I'm being too hard on the Congress, let me say that two biggest surprise performers on the campaign trail have been Priyanka Gandhi, as I've mentioned in a previous article here, and the party's candidate from Mumbai North, actress Urmila Matondkar. Matondkar in particular has been a revelation, particularly since I don't remember her making a single political remark before her surprise entrance into politics. But her speeches on the stump have been fiery and fluent, almost like she's been preparing for this role her entire life. The BJP has targeted her in the most venomous manner possible, but she has stood firm and replied in kind. Priyanka Gandhi gave the speech of the week in Fatehpur Sikri, although you would not know it from the media coverage that fixated on a minor verbal fumble. It was the best counter to the PM's nationalist rhetoric by an opposition leader thus far. And the fact that she expertly used the rhetorical device of anaphora, repeating 'agar aap rashtravadi hain, toh...' at the start of every clause, showed that she's learning, and fast. But she's still burdened with a political liability named Robert Vadra, so Rahul fans need not despair quite yet.
There has been something crucial missing in this entire election campaign. We have a ruling party that will plumb to any depths as long as they can win this election and facing it is a fragmented opposition so obsessed with toppling Modi while also tackling the Election Commission and tussling with each other that they don't have time for much else. In this political landscape of negativity where does the voter go for ideological nourishment, where does the voter go for hope? Where is the leader that speaks for all of India, reassuring those millions of Indians that feel threatened under the current regime, inspiring the youth through a message of positivity, while promising competency in governance, and firmly planting the flag of a pluralistic India for a new generation? The wait for Nehru's heir continues.
(Krishan Partap Singh is a novelist and political commentator.)
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