Rahul Gandhi In Arunachal

Can Rahul Pull It Off As Prime Minister

As the battle for the most powerful and prestigious chair in the country rages on, many voters have put their penny on Rahul Gandhi as the next Prime Minister of India. Does the Gandhi scion has the mettle to handle the power and responsibility that comes with the post? In a new series of articles, LokMarg will examine the various contenders for the Prime Minister’s job, starting with the arch-challenger, Rahul Gandhi.

Well before Rahul Gandhi took over as the Congress president, a large section of his own party members were not sure that he had the capacity to lead them. After all, the Nehru-Gandhi scion had acquired a reputation of being a non-serious politician who was yet to get a firm grip on the party’s organization. In addition, he had an uneasy relationship with other opposition parties and was unable to connect with the public on account of his poor oratorical skills.

The fact that Rahul Gandhi had been unsuccessful in delivering electoral victories for the party was another negative. These doubts about his leadership qualities were further fuelled by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s relentless and highly successful campaign, dubbing Rahul Gandhi as “Pappu”.

However, there has been a dramatic change in Rahul Gandhi over the past eighteen months. His oratory has improved considerably though he is not in the same class as Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Congress president is gradually coming across as a mature politician, who is fighting shy of taking on the Modi government and is more focused on handling the party organization. Rahul Gandhi further redeemed himself with a credible performance in last year’s Gujarat assembly polls, which was followed by victories in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

More than a year after he took control of the party, the Congress president has finally shed the “pappu” image while his critics within the party have been effectively silenced.

ALSO READ: Transformation Of Rahul, Tweet By Tweet

But does this mean that Rahul Gandhi is now ready to shoulder the responsibility of leading the nation as its Prime Minister just in case the post-poll numbers favour the Congress. No,  the Congress president has still some distance to cover before he is accepted by the public at large as a credible alternative to Modi. For starters, he is sorely handicapped by his lack of administrative experience. Rahul Gandhi had an opportunity to fill this gap in his resume when he was offered a Cabinet berth in the Manmohan Singh government but he decided instead to focus on party affairs. Besides his lack of experience, Rahul Gandhi does not instill confidence in the voter that he can handle matters of state without fumbling or making a faux pas.

Congress leaders, of course, are quick to point out that his father Rajiv Gandhi also came with no previous experience in running a government when he took over as Prime Minister in 1984 in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. However, Rajiv Gandhi had the advantage of a massive majority in the Lok Sabha which enabled him to take decisive steps in both domestic and foreign affairs. Despite widespread skepticism, he pushed ahead with advances in information technology and telecommunications sectors. Rajiv Gandhi was also emboldened to take risky decisions like signing the Longowal accord in insurgency-hit Punjab, was responsible for a paradigm shift in Sino-India relations and sought to build bridges with Sri Lanka though he ended up paying a heavy price for it.

ALSO READ: Rahul’s Popularity On The Rise

Unlike his father, Rahul Gandhi is not expected to have the luxury of numbers in case he does get a shot at ascending the Prime Minister’s kursi. The Congress footprint has shrunk considerably over the past three decades and the party has gradually come to terms with the fact that it needs the support of coalition partners to come to power at the Centre as it cannot do on its own. There are lurking doubts that Rahul Gandhi has the temperament or the gravitas to deal with temperamental and demanding allies even if there is a remote possibility that the other opposition parties will concede the Prime Minister’s post to him. Undoubtedly, he will have to rely on Sonia Gandhi and other senior leaders like Ahmed Patel and Ghulam Nabi Azad to keep the allies in good humour.

Whatever other disadvantages he may have, the Congress president will have a large inhouse talent pool at his disposal to assist him in running the government. Besides, Rahul Gandhi comes with a long and rich legacy which is both a source of strength and weakness. On one hand, the party’s past experience provides a ready template for governance but on the other hand, it will also make it difficult for the young Gandhi to chart an independent path. Here, he will be hemmed in not just by his coalition partners but also by his party members. Remember the stiff resistance PV Narasimha Rao faced from Congress insiders when he deviated from the party’s set economic policy and drafted Manmohan Singh to liberalize the economy.

ALSO READ: Rahul Gandhi In A New Avatar

Nevertheless, the Congress brand name, though considerably diluted, will give Rahul Gandhi an edge over the other Prime Ministerial contenders in the opposition camp. The Nehru-Gandhi scion may be lacking in experience but he can always fall back on seasoned leaders like former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram, Anand Sharma and A.K. Antony to navigate him through possible minefields in the areas of economic and foreign affairs.

Like his mother, Rahul Gandhi has made it abundantly clear that he will build on the party’s pro-poor image with a special emphasis on addressing agrarian distress and the implementation of an income guarantee scheme for the needy as detailed in the party’s election manifesto. But it is equally certain that there will be no going back on economic reforms ushered in by Manmohan Singh.

Rajiv Gandhi’s friend Sam Pitroda is currently playing a key role in Rahul Gandhi’s dispensation and will continue to do so if the Congress president makes the cut as the country’s Prime Minister. Pitroda has been instrumental in planning and organizing Rahul Gandhi’s tours in the United States, Britain and the Middle East where he has interacted with both the Indian diaspora and global leaders, policy makers, think tanks and academics.

The intention is to position Rahul Gandhi as an international leader, to correct the perception that he is a dilettante, improve his image abroad and provide an opportunity to the outside world to get acquainted with his views on a vast array of subjects. As in the case of economic affairs, Rahul Gandhi is unlikely to deviate from the Congress position in the area of international affairs which will continue to focus on strengthening ties with both Russia and the United States and improving relations with the neighboring countries. An assurance to this effect has been conveyed during Rahul Gandhi’s trips abroad and his periodic meetings with visiting world leaders.

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Narendra Modi In Varanasi

PM Disclosed Horse Trading Plan: TMC

Trinamool Congress (TMC) on Monday filed a complaint against Prime Minister Narendra Modi before the Election Commission over the alleged horse trading of party leaders.

“The complaint against Modi for horse-trading has been filed with ECI on Monday at 7 pm,” TMC spokesperson Derek O’Brien tweeted.

Earlier in the day, the TMC leader had hit back at Prime Minister Modi for his remark that 40 TMC MLAs are in touch with him, asking if he is campaigning or is indulging in horse trading.

Taking to Twitter, O’Brien called Modi “Expiry Babu PM” and tweeted, “Expiry Babu PM, let’s get this straight. Nobody will go with you. Not even one councillor.”

“Are you election campaigning or horse trading! Your expiry date is near. Today, we are complaining to the Election Commission. Charging you with horse trading. #LokSabhaElection2019.”

Addressing a public rally in Serampore in West Bengal, Prime Minister Modi had said that 40 TMC MLAs are in touch with him and there is nothing that can save Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

Related News: Mamata Slams BJP For Ignoring Elders

“Didi, on May 23, when the results will come, the lotus will bloom everywhere and your MLAs will leave you. Didi, your 40 MLAs are in contact with me even now,” he said at the public meeting.

Eight parliamentary constituencies in West Bengal — Baharampur, Krishnagar, Ranaghat, Burdwan East, Burdwan-Durgapur, Asansol, Bolpur and Birbhum, went to polls under the fourth phase of the Lok Sabha election.

There are 42 Lok Sabha seats in the state. The counting of votes will take place on May 23.

(ANI)

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Religion In Indian Politics

When Secular Is Mocked As ‘Sick-ular’

BJP has launched an aggressive election campaign on Hindu ‘victimhood’ that requires to be repaired (sic) with attempts to enforce its supremacy over others

Cradle of at least three and home of many more, India is what it is because of the multiplicity of faiths. Religion and religiosity are integral to its culture that has had a continuity few others have.

Call it mutual ‘tolerance’ or ‘acceptance’, Indians professing different faiths live together despite past foreign military invasions followed by conversions, whether they were forced by the sword, coerced through temptations or voluntary. There is assimilation even as people are sought to be divided on religious lines.

What is ‘secular’ in modern-day parlance has evolved with Indian connotations and convenience, just as what is ‘communal’ has to explain what is not ‘secular’. And ‘secular’ itself has undergone transformation from being anti-faith and irreligious to treating all faiths with equal respect. 

For two millennia-plus, India has remained pluralist and yet, in terms of numbers, overwhelmingly (79.8 percent) Hindu. 

And yet, the current election is witnessing an aggressive discourse on Hindu ‘victimhood’ that requires to be repaired with attempts to enforce its supremacy over others. Hindutva, the ploy used to give political turn to the majority faith, gives new twists to the very understanding of the terms ‘tolerance’ and ‘acceptance’. Secular is spelt ‘sick-ular’.  

Three top members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) including an estranged member of the Gandhi ‘dynasty’ courted controversy last week for appearing to threaten people to vote for them.

A video showed women and child welfare minister Maneka Gandhi warning a Muslims’ gathering to vote for her or be shunned if she returns to power. “I am winning with the help of the people. But if my victory comes without the support of Muslims, then I will not feel good… “It will leave a bitter taste. And then when a Muslim comes for any work, then I will think let it be.”

The other new incident involved Sakshi Maharaj, a Hindu monk, who told a gathering in Kanpur that he would “curse” those who do not vote for him. “When a saint comes to beg and isn’t given what he asks for, he takes away all the happiness of the family and in turn gives curse to the family,” Maharaj said, adding he was quoting from sacred Hindu scriptures. He is facing 34 criminal charges, including alleged murder, robbery and cheating.

These offenders are from the ruling alliance. But in a growing list, politicians from other parties and alliances, like Navjot Singh Sidhu, Mayawati and Azam Khan, have also used religious ploys, sexist remarks, hate and intimidation to win support of the electorate even though soliciting votes on religious lines or threatening voters is prohibited.

The Election Commission, while struggling to maintain its authority and a semblance of fairness, has admitted before the country’s highest court that it is ‘toothless’ and ‘helpless’ before the offenders.

For the first time, the statutory body conducting the world’s largest democratic exercise has slapped token punishments of exclusion from public speaking, using its limited powers, to some of these offenders for violating the EC-set norms by appealing to religion or employing religion-related issues. But the punishment has been ridiculed by some who play to the public gallery and some others have repeated their offences.

Besides Sakshi Maharaj, ‘curse’ has become the new cussword. It is astounding that what one read in fairy tales and mythology is used today to damn opponents.

The most controversial curse has come from Pragya Singh Thakur, a lady monk connected with a Hindu extremist body, nominated by the BJP to contest. Unique and complicated, her case needs elaboration. She is on trial for offences ranging from conspiracy to murder and transporting explosives. For want of evidence, a special court recently exonerated her for the 2007 blast on Samjhauta Express, the train that links India and Pakistan. Seventy Pakistanis returning home and Indians visiting their relations in Pakistan died.

The court passed severe strictures against the investigators who first probed a Muslim group and then switched to “Hindu terror”, allegedly on political orders. In effect, none has been convicted and punished, even as India demands of Pakistan to try and punish those involved in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

Thakur said she had ‘cursed’ the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) chief, Hemant Karkare who she alleges tortured her. The police officer died fighting the Pakistani militants in Mumbai. Honoured posthumously, Karkare had also led the investigations against Thakur in other cases including one pertaining to blasts at a mosque. Thakur now declares that he died “within five weeks” of her ‘curse’. She later regretted her remark, but wants everyone who implicated her in terror attacks to apologise. 

Modi has defended her nomination, declaring that there is “nothing called Hindu terrorism.” Legalities apart, her nomination, while she is out on bail on health grounds, allows her to convert herself from a terror suspect and a victim of her investigators and the judiciary who were ostensibly doing their job, to a heroine upholding her faith.

Admittedly, Thakur is not convicted. She is among the many contesting this election, like others with criminal cases. But in nominating her, Modi and BJP that routinely hand out certificates of nationalism and tag anyone who disagrees with their dominant narrative as a traitor, are rooting for an accused in a terrorism case.

Individuals apart, how faith determines the fate of friends and adversaries is clear from BJP’s official Twitter account. It quotes party chief Amit Shah’s speech that explicitly declared that if re-elected, it would implement the Citizenship bill for the entire country and would act against all infiltrators who were not Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist.

The party’s stand on different communities is no secret. The important thing is the fear that this position elicits among potential voters.

Those obviously excluded are Muslims — invaders who stayed on to rule — and Christians, although those who came as traders and turned colonizers hardly exist in present-day India. The targets could be members of the 24 million community that accounts for 2.3 percent of the totally population.  But they are ‘outsiders’.

The most telling exclusion – one hopes it’s inadvertent — is that of Parsis, the Zoroastrian migrants from Iran who made India their home 14 centuries ago — in Gujarat, the home-state of Modi and Shah. 

The opposition has no answer to this campaign. By not countering the BJP on lynching and numerous other issues that pertain to the minorities and depressed sections of the society, the opposition parties by and large, but the Congress especially, have conceded to the BJP’s ideological narrative.

Sadly, Shah’s viewing the electorate as Ali-versus-Bajrangbali is finding tacit acceptance from rising urban middle classes. Unlikely to end with these elections, it is now a reality of our times, unlikely to go away.

One is sticking the neck out mid-way through the voting process, with its outcome barely three weeks away. Forget arguing over Modi’s development plank and his many achievements and failures, he could get a fresh mandate by dividing people on religious lines, instilling fear in them. But if he fails, it will be because a resilient society that has lived in plurality for long has its own silent, even if opaque, way of dealing with such attempts.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com


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Narendra Modi In Varanasi

Ajay Rai, Not Priyanka, To Challenge Modi

The Congress on Thursday fielded Ajay Rai as its candidate from the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat, putting to rest speculation regarding Priyanka Gandhi Vadra contesting the election against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Prime Minister Modi won from Varanasi by a margin of 3.37 lakh votes. AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal and Rai were among the candidates from the seat. While Kejriwal came in the second place, Rai stood third in the vote tally.

Priyanka last week had said that she will contest the Lok Sabha election from Varanasi against Prime Minister Modi if the party president Rahul Gandhi asks her to do so.

This would be the second time Prime Minister Modi and Ajay Rai will battle from Varanasi seat.

Varanasi goes to polls in the seventh and the final phase of the general election on May 19. The result will be announced on May 23.

Meanwhile, the Congress has also announced the name of Madhusudan Tiwari as its candidate from Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat. (ANI)

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Generation Shift In Indian Politics

Election 2019 Will Witness Generational Change

This Lok Sabha elections, 500 million young people will vote in the country, 15 million of them for the first time

This had to happen, sooner than later. India is used to politicians furthering their social and economic clout while professing to be “in service of the people.” Now, several private institutions are producing professionally trained politicians. “Serving public” may soon be like “customer care.”

Khadi, the homespun cotton that Indian politicians generally don is optional for the young wannabe with varying political beliefs prescribed kurta –pajama-jacket uniforms. They are attending training courses that will fetch them degrees, diplomas and certificates at convocation ceremonies.

The Parliament’s Bureau of Parliamentary Research and Studies runs an internship course for the young. But now a plethora of private institutions has come up to train the young to ‘connect’ and ‘engage’ with the people. Concept of “public service” may not be prominent in the syllabi, but thankfully, the Indian Constitution is.

They charge between Rs 300,000 to Rs 1.6 million per course, promising to make “better leaders.” The corporate touch is inescapable and so is the nudge from some of the political parties who want to “catch them young.”

It is not difficult to see that besides electoral politics, the graduate can become a lobbyist, a counselor, a PR man or an analyst. These are among the areas of interest for business houses, investors, visiting suppliers and deal-makers and foreign embassies. Or, join a NGO.

Whether this kind of education and training could produce a politician willing to get hands dirty, dine with the poor in their homes and join the rough and tumble of party affairs would seem seriously doubtful to an old-timer. But if there are cyber warriors, why not have cyber politicians? Haven’t harnessing knowledge, skill and technology, and using sociology and psephology, produced strategy room analyses, surveys and Exit polls for nearly four decades now?

This has not ended, but has slashed the role of the hands-on reporter who hits the election trail, talking to the tea vendor or interviewing a bus and rail rider to fathom the ‘ground’.  As this reporter gets tech-savvy the interviewees, too, are getting smart, saying what the TV cameras want. The current campaign is hugely being driven by the social media.  

This is inevitable as India urbanizes, educates and acquires economic heft. Political activity has evolved although it requires moving out in the blazing sun to a rough rural terrain. The cyber-boys and girls would need that at least during elections and when mass movements are launched.

Going by past experience, with each Lok Sabha election, roughly a third of the 543 lawmakers are replaced or are defeated and new ones ring in. Besides growing use of technology, the current run-up to the elections is a hugely transformational exercise. To assess it, one has to jostle with personal views, political preferences and professional objectivity required of a scribe.  

Out, at least from the LoK Sabha elections are  Lal Krishna Advani and  Murli Manohar Joshi two of the founders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Appointed ‘margadarshaks’ (advisors) five years ago, they are now, as a television debater tellingly put it, ‘darshaks’, just onlookers.

Three other Ram temple movement leaders who witnessed demolition of the historic Babri Mosque in Ayodhya city in 1992 – Uma Bharati, Kalyan Singh (now Rajasthan Governor) and Vinay Katiar — are not among the contestants. The tumultuous event they led and much that happened in its aftermath have seriously challenged the idea of an inclusive India. How these five will face prolonged court trial for their role is best left to the future.

Three scores of BJP lawmakers have been changed. The process began in 2014 with an age bar of 75. Modi denied ministerial berths to Advani and Joshi. Now the generational shift in the party has reached the next level.

Sentiments apart and even discounting speculation over lack of personal equations among other reasons for their exclusion, the BJP needs to fight incumbency. All this is inevitable in India that is seen with justification as a gerontocracy.

This is also true of other parties. Elders have been forced to be flexible as they tackle pressures from young aspirants, many of them family members – even grandchildren. Former premier H D Deve Gowda and Sharad Pawar have had to change their Lok Sabha constituencies to accommodate young wards. Her retirement plans well-known, former Congress chief Sonia Gandhi has returned to the election arena.

Mulayam Singh Yadav, having lost control of Samajwadi Party to son Akhilesh, has accepted the same party nomination. This is after the perennial prime minister-in-waiting bid farewell to parliament and surprised everyone by wishing a victorious return to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Times are changing.

Part of this change is the idea of crowd-funding of election, not exactly new, is attracting the young. Kanhaiya Kumar, former leader of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, has adopted it. Parties and their nominees unlikely to be funded by moneybags may follow him now and in future. This ensures public participation.   

Young leaders are emerging even as ‘win-ability’ compulsions force them to field the old. While Akhilesh has won the family turf war, acrimony has surfaced in the other Yadav clan in Bihar between two sons of jailed Lalu Prasad. The two northern states are crucial for the Opposition alliances to challenge Modi/BJP.

Rahul has found state satraps scuttling Congress’ alliances with other parties in Delhi, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. His gambit of contesting a second seat in Kerala, while boosting his party in the South where he hopes to do better than the BJP, has antagonized the communists, already angry with him for failure to align in West Bengal.

It is difficult to blame any single party. But many have seriously wondered if the Congress as the biggest opposition entity has frittered away the opportunity to show accommodation to others, thus conceding space to the ruling alliance.

The once-reticent Rahul’s in-your-face attacks on Modi have won him admirers and expectedly, counter-attacks from BJP and its social media acolytes.  In contrast, sister Priyanka’s striking presence and a conversational style appeal to listeners.

Some issues are out from the BJP’s armour. At his rallies, Modi doesn’t promise to build Ram temple anymore; nor does he defend government’s policies. It’s all hyperbole.

And some issues are passé for both sides. None talks of corruption, Rupee’s demonetization, triple talaq for Muslim women and lynching of Muslims by cow-protecting vigilantes. The opposition is silent on the Rafale aircraft deal. Call it prioritizing – or opportunism.

Overall, the opposition has fallen short in forging credible state level alliances, leave alone a national one. It is a difficult task given conflicting ambitions and support bases when transfer of votes from one party to another is not easy. The opposition does not have a tall leader who can parley across the parties.  It is advantage BJP.

With opposition alliances in many states gone awry, analysts say there is lack of clarity in opposition strategy and eventually, too much will depend on post-polls give-and-take. In 2004, that had helped the Congress race past a shocked BJP. But now, BJP is the predominant force led by the most formidable team of Modi and party chief Amit Shah, geared 24×7 into poll-mode, with full intent to retain power at any cost.

But with incumbency factor looming large, the numbers may elude Modi as of now. To get the numbers, Modi is trying hard to build sentiment, hoping to trigger a wave.

This explains his below-the-belt rhetoric. When critics are called “anti-national” and asked to “go to Pakistan” and the neighbour itself, accorded undue, exaggerated place in domestic discourse and is predicted to “die its own death,” one wonders what message electioneering in the world’s largest democracy is giving to others.

(The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com )

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Woman Holds Narendra Modi Cutout

Is It Advantage Modi Before The Elections Begin?

Even before the first vote is cast, and campaigning reaches its crescendo, Modi is probably entering the fray with an advantage.

A few days ago, one of India’s most respected and well-known senior TV journalists posted a tweet that was telling. She was reporting from the field in Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh and her tweet said: “A commonly described refrain about @narendramodi–not Pulwama, Balakot, or PM Kisan–is “he works really hard and he isn’t gaining anything for himself” – talking to voters in Baghpat. #OnTheRoad2019”. India’s national elections are less than a fortnight away and, increasingly, the views gleaned from the ground seem to point to a public mood that favours re-electing Mr Narendra Modi, his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and its several allies.

Dipstick surveys of the sort that journalists often resort to—talking to local cab drivers or roadside tea stall owners is one of the commonest tactics they use—are neither rigorous nor scientific ways of gauging the pre-election mood of an electorate, at least not of one that is as diverse, complex, and confounding as that of India’s. Yet, as we head for this year’s national elections (they begin on April 11 and go on for seven phases), what people outside the high-decibel chatter on social media platforms are saying bears consideration. Mr Modi and his government appear to elicit greater levels of faith among large swathes of India’s population. So, are they headed towards an election with a definite edge over their opponents such as the Congress party or the motley crew of other parties that have been trying to forge a grand alliance to oust the BJP-led government?

When it comes to campaigning for votes Mr Modi has a clear edge over his rivals. Whatever critics say, he’s probably the best orator in Indian politics today. His speeches may be peppered with “politically incorrect” statements (recently, while speaking to students at an IIT, he appeared to be mocking Congress president Rahul Gandhi as someone suffering from dyslexia), or repetitive homilies about how his government had delivered on what it had promised, or even inaccurate accounts of things such as India’s growth, employment generation, and poverty alleviation during his regime, but his oratorical skills are clearly a huge draw among ordinary Indians who usually come out in strength to listen to him at his numerous rallies. The average Indian sees Mr Modi as a strong, hardworking leader who is honest and selfless.

A gifted speaker, Mr Modi’s rally speeches are designed to touch the heart of his audiences. He speaks to them in simple language, although he has a penchant for coining acronyms, and is usually able to create a feeling of respect, admiration and trust among them. Through his tenure, he has leveraged this talent. His monthly radio talk, Mann ki Baat, which partly crowd sources its themes, and has a potential to reach 90% of Indians, is a huge hit. He has nearly 47 million followers on Twitter and has posted more than 22,800 tweets (Donald Trump has 59.5 million and 41,000 tweets) and even though he’s faced flak for not holding a single press conference since he became Prime Minister in 2014, his alternative way of keeping in contact with people seems to have borne fruit. No one except the media complains about the PM not holding pressers.

In several polls, confidence trackers and other devices of that ilk, Mr Modi continues to be head and shoulders ahead of his rival politicians when it comes to who most people would prefer to see as the leader of their nation. In contrast, the Congress president and Mr Modi’s main rival, Mr Gandhi, is still seen as a work in progress. That may seem amusing because at 48, Mr Gandhi may be a generation younger than Mr Modi, 68, but he’s already a middle-aged man.  Mr Gandhi’s election speeches are also not remarkable. He’s not as good a public speaker. But more importantly, his speeches lack the conviction that Modi’s speeches invariably seem to have. Also, during this election season, other than the announcement of a form of universal basic income for the poorest in India, in his public utterances, there has been little of his vision for a better India.

Mr Gandhi’s party just released its manifesto for the elections, spelling out what it would do if it came to power. It was no surprise that it promised a thorough investigation into the Modi government’s deal to buy Rafale fighter jets from France—a deal that the Congress and others believe smacks of corruption. But its main focus was on creating jobs; alleviating distress among India’s farmers; and, naturally, the minimum income scheme that Mr Gandhi had announced earlier, and in which Rs 72,000 a year would be paid to the poorest 20% of households.

The BJP is yet to release its manifesto—before the last election in 2014, it had done so only very late into the campaigning period. But it would be a real surprise if that document didn’t prioritise the exact same things that the Congress’s one has. The Modi government has been perceived to be tardy on issues such as employment generation and well-being of farmers. Political prudence would dictate that these issues would feature high up on the BJP’s manifesto as well. India’s problems—particularly on the economic development front are complex and so large that no aspirant for New Delhi’s seat of power can ignore them, least of all an aspirant wanting to be re-elected.

The outcome of India’s elections—they are complex and involve various permutations and factors that influence voters’ choices—are never predictable. The size and scale of itself is massive: 820 million voters; 930,000 polling stations; 1.4 million electronic voting machines; 11 million security personnel overseeing polling over seven phases. But so is the unpredictability of the voting trends. How a party fares in populous states such as Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh (now bifurcated into two separate states), and Maharashtra could be the determinant of whether it gets a shy at forming the government. Moreover, votes are cast on the basis of many other factors that go beyond economics and the personalities of leaders. Caste and religion create blocs of voters; and India’s population of 172 million Muslims who are its largest minority have not exactly been happy in the past five years under a government led by a party whose policies have always had Hindu nationalism at its core. Recently, at one of his rallies, while upbraiding the Congress for creating the term “Hindu terror”, Mr Modi implied Mr Gandhi was contesting from an additional Muslim-dominated constituency because he was afraid of losing from his regular constituency, UP’s Amethi. In 2014, when the BJP and its allies won 336 seats out of 543 in India’s lower house of Parliament, few psephologists had been able to predict that it would be such an overwhelming win. One reason why India’s pre-poll surveys often go horribly wrong is because of the diversity and sheer size of the electorate—huge numbers of voters; and a vastly diverse population, both in terms of demographics and psychographics. In a country of 1.3 billion, sometimes the biggest sample size you can manage to poll is quite often just not big enough. Yet, even before the first vote is cast, and election campaigning reaches its crescendo, it may not be wrong to say that Mr Modi is probably entering the fray with an advantage.

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Will Lok Sabha Polls 2019 Be A Referendum On Modi?

The world’s largest democracy, a major economy but by no means prosperous, India is also the most expensive when holding its elections.

Its 2014 democratic exercise cost as much as the United States’ 2012 presidential elections, when Barack Obama was re-elected. The one beginning next month, estimated by New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies, may cost $ seven billion, or INR 50,000 crores.

Another calculation by political scientist Milan Vaishnav is of a whopping $10 billion, based on growth in expenditure incurred for two polls conducted in 2009 and 2014.  The US spent much less, $6.5 billion while electing Donald Trump in 2016.

These huge sums do not come only from the state that funds conducting of the polls. Contestants receive contributions, overt and covert, from businesses, corporate sector and the untaxed and largely invisible farm income. Experience shows that they are made with the understanding that the next government will tweak laws to help recover that money. This breeds corruption.

Should such an expensive exercise be a cacophony that it now seems?

With three weeks to go, the air is thick with hyper-nationalistic fervor triggered by last month’s terror attack in Kashmir followed by India-Pakistan aerial stand-off.

Tensions have subsided but not really ended. Speculation persists over its resumption, should there be another incident on the border or in India-controlled Kashmir. Such eventuality, assuming the world community (mainly the United States) is surprised again, is certain to sweep all other issues out of the polls.

Leaving aside madcaps (there are some on both sides of the Indo-Pak border) who think that India engineered the Pulwama attack, it seems god-sent for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and the ruling alliance.

To his credit, Modi did act tough, defying the nuclear threshold that has prevented a larger conflict, but not stopped Pakistan from using its so-called “non-state actors” for staging terror attacks. This was something his predecessors Manmohan Singh (in 2008 Mumbai terror attacks) and Atal Bihari Vajpayee (Kargil-1999, and attack on Indian Parliament-2001)  had not. Modi then swept the nation mounting an “I will not let the country down” campaign, converting the polls campaign into one referendum on national security.

His party, its ideological affiliates and a huge army of cyber warriors troll anyone critical of security lapses and/or seeking details of what precisely happened on the border.

The elections are now divided pre and post-Pulwama. The opposition is on the back-foot. As loyalty to the nation of those who ask questions, howsoever legitimate, is questioned, undoubtedly, this means political/electoral gains and losses.

People across the spectrum — media, academics and security experts among retired soldiers and diplomats – even individual families – are divided. Some ruling alliance stalwarts have gleefully given themselves more seats than they hoped to win earlier in parliament and state legislatures thanks to the border incidents. With Modi being projected as the superhero pandering to popular yearning of a strong leader, the pitch is queered against the opposition.  

However, past electoral outcomes have been mixed and indicate that there are limits to all this. For one, Kashmir and war with Pakistan do not resonate in India’s south as they do in the north and the west. Polls were won after conflicts, but not swept, be it in 1971 when Congress’ Indira Gandhi helped breaking-up of Pakistan and emergence of Bangladesh. BJP’s Vajpayee got the same numbers after the Kargil conflict in 1999. 

Electoral verdicts do not always match popular sentiments. The BJP lost in Uttar Pradesh 11 months after its cadres demolished the 16th century Babri Masjid in 1992.  And although it dubbed Manmohan Singh India’s “weakest prime minister” and BJP veteran L K Advani used the pejorative ‘nikamma’ (hopeless) after the terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008, the Congress improved its parliamentary majority and Singh got a second term.

But popular sentiments yielded results post-“surgical strikes” in Kashmir in 2016 by Modi Government. The BJP swept the polls in Uttar Pradesh despite the miseries caused by demonetization of the currency. Political engineering helped consolidation of the majority community’s vote at the expense the minority Muslims.

Most populous UP is the principal battleground now where the BJP is being seriously challenged by Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party. Credible reports indicate that the Modi campaign is working. That 11 of the 44 soldiers who died in Pulwama were from the state matters. But, this is as-of-now, since the difficult-to-fathom public mood can change. And none can fathom how the rural mind, in UP and elsewhere, perceives these polls.

Arguably, the public at large is more worried about dal-roti. If it is looking for options other than Modi, it doesn’t find credible faces among the opposition. What began as Modi-versus-the-rest effort has stuttered. Some contenders have emerged following state-level alliances, but a credible national alternative is absent.   

The communists who forged alternative fronts in the past, providing political edge by helping formulate socio-economic common minimum programme have become irrelevant.

Next, the Congress has failed to accept allies and also being acceptable as a key opposition driver. Its alliance-making is non-starter. Its past gives it a misplaced sense of entitlement. Rahul Gandhi, despite his belated surge at the national level in the last one year and winning in three key states, cannot match up against the prime ministerial ambitions of numerous state satraps. 

The impact of its ‘brahmastra’, the most potent weapon Priyanka Gandhi, will be known only when results are out. Rahul’s Ailing mother and former party chief Sonia is contesting to save her turf. Those who yearn for Congress’ return, if only as a lesser evil, may be in for a disappointment.

The Pulwama plank seems to have stonewalled the Rafael deal debate. It also excludes any discourse on day-to-day issues, especially on the troubled economy. The government version dominates through its massive propaganda machinery. Bulk of the media, both mainstream and social, the key urban drivers, are divided on pro and anti- government lines.

Politicians are generally not economists. And even if they are, they remain politicians first. Modi too is a politician, and a good one at that. All his major moves are politically motivated. His deft political engineering, now topped with “Pulwama patriotism”, has muted discussion on unemployment with job growth at its lowest in 40 years after statistics officially put out but discredited by the government itself.

His government continues to project demonetization of 86 percent of the currency notes three years ago in terms of curbing black money and denial of funds to militant bodies, when subsequent indicators have shown otherwise.   

Falling exports have yet to catch up the 2013-14 level. Industrial growth in January slowed down to 1.7 percent compared to the 2.6 percent in factory output in December last year. The GDP remains under-7 percent.

Equally serious is the farm distress. Thousands unable to repay debts have committed suicide. Minimum support price for farm produce and waiving of farm loans have come too late in the day.  Low inflation has been driven by falling food prices, cutting farmers’ incomes and pushing up debt levels. About 800 million depend on farming for their livelihood.

With Saudi Arabia, the largest source, committed to production cuts to keep crude oil prices low, it seems unlikely that India’s fuel and energy costs, a key factor for the economy, will stay soft for long. And with political parties opening the spending spigot in a bid to woo voters, inflationary impulses will quicken.

Modi remains way ahead of his rivals. But there is a risk to democrcy. Political analyst Vijay Sanghvi says Modi has isolated himself thanks to his governance style. “He has reduced the status and stature of every minister and party leader. No one informs him of rampant growth of corruption at lower levels.  Unemployment is more hurting as low grade jobs are lost.”

The newest campaign slogan “Modi Hai toh Mumqin Hai” (It’s possible with Modi) reinforces this and places him as the centerpiece of a nationwide campaign. 

This election is for the soul of India and its pluralism. But it would also be a referendum on Modi.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

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#RealChowkidar – ‘BJP's New Lollypop’

Mahender Singh, 72, is an ex-serviceman employed at a mid-size hotel in Gwalior. He believes the chowkidar slogan is a political lollypop. Having said that, he believes that Indian Air Force strikes inside Pakistan territory have turned the tide in favour of the BJP.

A few days back my grandson showed me a video clip on his phone. It showed people from all walks of society singing ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’, because they were inspired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling himself a chowkidar. Kuch jyada hi ho gaya (It was a bit over the top). Little do those hero-heroines in the video realise what it takes to be a security guard. Can anyone of them keep a watch for 12 hours every day, or work the whole night in rain and cold out in the open?

In the real world, outside political jumlebazi, people have little regard for a security guard. Have those men and women ever spoken to a guard politely? They merely expect us to open their car door and greet them with respect, without even bothering to return a smile. So there is little to get carried away by such videos; this is just advsertisement.

Like other governments, the Narendra Modi regime too has no great concern for people’s suffering. They work less but publicise big. I have faced tough times and training during my career in the Indian Army more than 35 years back. I am proud of the force and the way they have the welfare of its own people. That jazba (spirit) is missing in our political class.

But one thing has worked in favour of Narendra Modi – you can call it a stroke of luck if you want. Terrorists in Kashmir provided him an opportunity to prove his mettle to the country. After the Pulwama attack, the people were angry and Modi government sanctioned out brave Air Force to carry out strikes into Pakistan terror camps. This has had great effect on the voter’s mind. In our village and neighbouring areas, people says he is a strong leader and India needs him.

The large number of people who attended the last rites of CRPF jawans martyred in Kashmir is a point in case. The mahaul (atmosphere) of the nation wanted a counter attack on Pakistan and Modi delivered just that. You will see him return to power after 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But, let me tell you, little will change after that. Life for the common man will continue as ever. Sab aise hi chalegea.

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#RealChowkidar – ‘It Mustn’t Remain Jumla’

Meet Ranjit Rai, a 36-year-old security guard from a small town in Jharkhand. He is thankful to Narendra Modi’s #MainBhiChowkidar campaign for bringing chokidars into the limelight.

I am an ATM security guard. I have been in the ‘security line’ for about a decade. So, yes I belong to the ‘chowkidar’ community that is in vogue now, be it television channels or political campaigns. Our Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign may not have changed any ground situation for the ‘chowkidars’ but at least his slogan has put the spotlight on our thankless work.

Another positive thing is that now I find a little pride in saying that ‘main chowkidar hoon’; there is no longer any lowliness attached to my vocation. I find it surprisingly funny how it took a comment by the prime minister for people to finally spare a thought for the likes of us.

Hopefully, with so much debate about us these days, things will change for better when the new government is formed. I can only pray that ‘Chowkidar’ doesn’t remain a ‘chunaav ka jumla’ (political slogan).

Earlier, I used to work in a sweet shop. Those were hard times. As a security guard, my life improved a notch better. I work in an 8-hour-shift every day. I get my salary on time unlike many others. However, I continue to be a part of India’s vast unorganised sector. My salary is Rs 10,000 a month, which is just not enough to support a family of six (even in a small town like ours).

Both BJP and the Opposition have got a conversation started about the unorganized sector and I am thankful for that. However, I wouldn’t want my children to join this profession. Things move very slowly in the unorganised sector. I am trying to provide them with good education in the hope of a better future. However, sometimes it gets difficult to make ends meet. Our expenses are shooting through the roof and my salary is just not enough. Our work deserves respect. During demonetisation, it was us, the real chowkidars, who had to handle massive crowds of angry and impatient people. With the risk involved and the hectic schedule, our salaries should definitely be increased.

Whichever party forms the government, it needs to think about bringing us ‘chowkidars’ completely under the organised sector so that we get on-job facilities as well as post-retirement benefits. Besides this, functional CCTV cameras and air conditioners in ATMs, (especially in semi-urban and rural areas) would make our lives a tad easier.

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