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Election 2019: Mockery of a campaign

By T N Ninan
May 21, 2019 15:28 IST
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If anything became clear during this campaign, it is this: Mr Modi can bat on almost any wicket and hit the ball over the ropes, says T N Ninan.

Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi at Badrinath, May 19, 2019.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi at Badrinath, May 19, 2019.

Most people might have expected that voters would be presented these past few weeks with a record of the Narendra Damodardas Modi government's term in office, what it promises for the future, and the alternatives that the Opposition offers.

The campaign did indeed begin that way, with the BJP's slogan of 'The impossible is now possible' (Namumkin ab mumkin hai), Rahul Gandhi's Nyay handout scheme, and arguments about the relative advantages and disadvantages of strong governments and coalition rule.

It turns out though that few have heard of Nyay, while Opposition coalescence is very partial.

In turn, the BJP discovered that its development record was not evocative enough and, using the Pulwama-Balakot strike-counterstrike, switched focus to national security.

That's when reality and campaign rhetoric began their divergence.


Mr Modi's uncanny ability to turn liability into asset was now in evidence.

The chowkidar's failure to act on intelligence warnings about a terrorist strike against army convoys, the embarrassment of having a fighter plane shot down and (worse) a helicopter brought down by own-side fire, the discovery that Pakistan's air force with a fraction of the Indian air force's budget can deploy better planes and better missiles and has more secure communications links -- all this uncomfortable realisation was buried under a full-throated campaign that focused on two high points: The Balakot strike and getting Masood Azhar declared a terrorist.

The Congress's belated bleats that its own track record had surgical strikes and other successes to show were, as usual, pusillanimous.

The national security debate took another curious turn, as though the country is in danger of being broken up by the 'tukde-tukde gang' of seditionists.

Nationalists should have greater confidence in their country's strengths.

If indeed there is danger, what of government strategy? The escalating levels of violence in both Naxal-infested areas and Jammu and Kashmir point to policy failure.

And China's security challenge gets no mention even as Beijing's tentacles reach into India's neighbourhood.

Then we descended to the level of farce, with the campaign veering off into accusations against a prime minister dead for more than a quarter century, and before that the actions of another prime minister dead for more than a half century.

Whatever the sins of commission and omission of Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi, are they election issues in 2019? Or are these deliberately escapist diversions?

Note that the economy has been given a convenient bypass by the BJP, except for the frequent assertion that no development took place for 70 years till Mr Modi came along.

The Congress in its usual ineffective way points to slowing growth, flat exports and declining investment, and new revelations about statistical fiction.

More had been said on the stump about jobs and rural distress, but Mr Modi did not respond.

How much of this mattered to the voter? In partisan politics people choose facts to suit bias or belief, more so when there is identification with a strong leader.

For millions of voters, Mr Modi's record may not be the best, but he remains the best bet.

Or, they have bought into his Hindutva nationalism.

Meanwhile, Mr Modi demonstrated yet again his ability to turn the tables on his critics by switching around the charge of tasteless criticism, and listing the multiple terms of abuse hurled at him over the years.

Rahul Gandhi's 'love dictionary', he called it with typical panache.

If anything has become clear during this campaign, it is this: Mr Modi can bat on almost any wicket and hit the ball over the ropes.

He will do it with a selective use of facts, play on emotion, and tropes about naamdars and kaamdars.

Should he lose his party's majority or (more drastically) the chance to govern further, it will be less because of the Opposition and more on his own account and because, despite an assiduous image build-up over five years, aggressive social media trolling and impressive histrionics on the stump, voters in the heartland prove to be disappointed with what he has delivered.

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