At mid-point of poll, Modi dominates like a colossus while rivals get little traction
They had pinned hope on 543 separate elections with regional leaders and provincial issues dominating the campaign. The idea was to minimize the impact of the forceful personality of the prime minister on the electorate. But the way things have panned out, it is turning out to be a single issue election throughout the length and breadth of the country. And that issue is the powerful political persona of Narendra Modi. Either you are with Modi or against him, but he alone seems to determine the voting preferences of a vast majority of people. Candidates hardly matter. Nor do party labels.
All that matters in this election is the magnetic pull of the Modi personality. Like him or hate him, you cannot ignore him. Socio-economic differences and castes seem to have become largely irrelevant. Modi is the fulcrum around which the whole campaign revolves -- much to the consternation of the Opposition and its numerous backers in the media.
So powerful is the pull of the Modi brand that even the single caste-based, family-owned parties such as the Samajwadi Party and the BSP in UP and Laloo’s Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar are finding it hard to hold on to their traditional support-bases. Neither Mayawati’s Jatavs nor Akhilesh Yadav’s Yadavs are impervious to the magnetism of the Modi persona which holds sway over a large chunk of the electorate. The only segment of voters which remains inherently hostile to the re-election of Modi for a second five-year term is, unsurprisingly, Muslims. In any case, they did not vote for him in 2014 either. And yet, Modi swept the electoral board, as it were. By all accounts, reports from UP and Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the main catchment area for the BJP in the last election, suggest that the party may be on course to do exceedingly well this time as well.
Now, whether the personality cult in politics is good for democracy is another issue. Since all political parties, big or small, hanker after power, any leader who can help his party win an election has to be necessarily a great asset. For the BJP Modi is that asset. And the day he loses his charismatic hold on the voter, he too perforce will have to join the ranks of the superseded netas who go under the misleading rubric of Margdarshak Mandal. So long as he continues to win elections for the party, he is allowed to wield the big stick, call all the shots, marginalize everyone young and old who does not fit into his scheme of things. In other words, it is Indira Gandhi redux, albeit with a bold saffron tinge.
The downside of the rise of a single-leader is that everyone else becomes virtually irrelevant. In a way, the decline and fall of the Congress began with Indira Gandhi emerging as the sole leader of the party --- remember the cringe-worthy slogan by D. K Barooah, Indira is India, India is Indira. Modi’s BJP is not there yet, essentially because there is RSS to step in should he step out of line. But there is no denying that almost all regional leaders have been marginalized while the Modi-Shah duo has placed their own men in key posts as chief ministers and state party chiefs.
Sorry, we digressed. We were on the election. Why Modi is succeeding, and his rivals are failing, is not hard to fathom. To begin with, he is an excellent communicator who easily connects with his audiences. Rahul Gandhi, although more confident, though as gaffe-prone as ever, has improved, but is nowhere near the oratorical excellence of his chief bête noire. Then there is the failure of the Opposition to prevent the division of the anti-Modi vote. There are three-and four-way contests in the Hindi heartland. In UP, the Congress may not improve upon its tally in 2014, but it is playing a spoiler for the BSP-SP in a number of constituencies. In western UP, it has fielded strong candidates who can wean away a sizable Muslim vote which otherwise would have certainly gone to the SP-BSP candidates. In Bihar, despite an agreement on seat-sharing, the lead party, RJD, and the Congress are beset with internal dissensions and open rebellion. Little can be said about the leadership skills of Rahul Gandhi when his former general secretary and spokesman, Shaqeel Ahmad, quits the party in a huff and challenges its official candidate as an independent.
Aside from the failure to form even a loosely-knit Mahagathbandhan, the lack of a common theme to hammer against Modi has confused the voters. Rahul is still flogging the Rafele dud while belatedly recycling Indira Gandhi’s garibi hatao theme under a new name, Nyay. No one is buying that lollipop, at least not from him. Even the poor have become so cynical that whatever the politicians promise they take with more than a pinch of salt. Also, harping on a lack of jobs fails to find traction because the record of the previous governments too was no better.
Meanwhile, the ~satta bazaar~ has two major points around which a chunk of its operations hinge this time around. One, there are big bets on whether or not Modi will form the next government, and, two, whether the Rahul Congress will get into three figures. Going by its assessment, the answer to the first is an overwhelming yes. And to the second, an equally categorical no.
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Back to Satpal Mittal, MP, and 7 others
Come elections, there is a spree of statements from self-avowed experts and others weighing in on all manner of issues in order to nudge the public opinion in favour of a particular party. The Congress Party under Indira Gandhi had practiced this stratagem most vigorously. In the 70s and 80s, statements decrying the non-Congress leaders would invariably bear the name of Satpal Mittal, MP, and 7 others. Or Shashi Bhushan, MP, and 9 others. They felt no need to spell out the names of the seven or the nine nor to ensure that the statement bore their signatures.
Four decades later, Rahul Gandhi is aping his grandmother, though not with much success. Though recent statements decrying the ruling BJP for this or that impropriety bears big names, the Congress is shown in poor light when on inquiry some of the persons whose names are mentioned firmly deny signing it. This was the case with the statement issued purportedly by the retired top brass of the armed forces. And a few days later by the members of the academia . As they say, even to copy you need to be clever.
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Priyanka lets down
Priyanka Gandhi might be unaware how she has riled the pro-Congress Twiteratti by chickening out of the Varanasi poll. And these social media warriors who bear their anti-Modi, anti-BJP bias on their blouse-sleeves, are showing it in so many words --- ok, make it 140, or is it 280 now? Having herself floated the idea , when she told a reporter she would not rule out contesting against Modi, Mrs Robert Vadra let down the faithful who had built up hopes of taking time off to be at her side in Varanasi, lending whatever support they could to her campaign. Poor things! Now they can only curse Priyanka for not being the leader they thought she was.