Politics of hallucination is losing out
Every so often small facts light up a large truth. One such nugget appeared in last Monday's Indian Express. This newspaper tracks, within many layers of election coverage, where any principal campaigner has been the previous day. And so there was a record of Narendra Modi chopper-hopping through Karnataka, reviving BJP in a state where the party has seen highs and lows through a few turbulent years; L.K. Advani was in Gujarat; Arvind Kejriwal was raising a bit of dust on road-shows in Punjab; and so on and so forth.
Where was Rahul Gandhi? The paper had a simple, even bland, statement: “No public engagements”. It was an answer, but not an explanation. The likeliest reason, judging by personal history, was that Rahul Gandhi was taking a day off because it was a Sunday.
There is more than one reason why Rahul Gandhi seems to have faded from public discourse during a dramatic campaign season; but one cannot avoid the nagging suspicion that the Congress star is averse to any excessive workload. Nor does he have much to say beyond inanities sprinkled through his script by pen-pushers.
In the meanwhile, India has been whirling away on a rapidly shifting axis. The most startling statistic of this general election was revealed by the most recent opinion polls conducted by India Today. In Bihar, Narendra Modi is on course to get an astonishing 23% of the Muslim vote. This signals the collapse of a central theme of Congress rhetoric: cloud the Indian Muslim mind with dread at the prospect of a Modi-led NDA coming to power in Delhi. Fear and fog are the last weapons in the arsenal of a fast-dissolving Congress and its formal or informal allies like Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar.
It is always dangerous to make predictions. But statistical and anecdotal evidence suggests that the most surprising results will come from Bihar and Maharashtra, which send 88 MPs to the Lok Sabha. There is substantial migration of Yadavs and Muslims, once the core of Lalu's base, towards the NDA, reflecting an evolution beyond the traditional fissures of caste-and-creed politics. India Today's poll confirms this: Muslim support for Lalu and Congress has dropped from 52% to 40% and doubled for BJP and its allies, from 12% to 23%. Among Yadavs, the slide has been from 40% to 29% while BJP goes up from 22% to 47%. Why?
This election is about development and welfare. The politics of hallucination, a staple of north Indian elections, has lost out. Whenever Indians have voted for their stomach, they have delivered a strong government; when emotions have predominated, there has been a fractured Parliament. We are hearing the echo of 1971, when Mrs Indira Gandhi demolished a bevy of foes with a clear message: “They want to remove Indira Gandhi. I want to remove poverty.” She personalised the promise, to decisive effect. It is not an accident that Narendra Modi evokes her memory. He told an audience in Karnataka, “You once voted Indira Gandhi to power. The youth of today may not know this because people like her do not exist in the Congress anymore… I will do ten times what she did if you vote for me to be PM.”
One of the prevailing clichés about elections is that no one reads a party manifesto. Perhaps the elitist commentariat is too busy to do so; but voters absorb a broad sense of what parties intend to deliver. The BJP manifesto gives precedence to jobs, education and investment in earning skills for minorities. It demands special attention for the girl child. It promises to protect the heritage of minorities and promote Urdu. It seeks to end the loot of waqf endowments that has been going on under the patronage of the present ruling establishment. It recognises the demand for a Ram temple at Ayodhya but categorises it as a cultural rather than an election issue. These are substantive commitments.
Every election has a sub-plot; parties which smell victory need to consolidate their base support, of course, but also set in motion a process by which there is slow accretion of votes from the basket of elsewhere. We can see both happening.
Mrs Indira Gandhi led Congress to a quantum leap forward in 1971 because she leavened the pent-up frustration with hope. Hope is antidote for anarchy. We saw anarchy rise and peak through the 1960s, not only in the spread of the Naxalite movement but also in numerous sectarian conflicts that ravaged India's social fabric. 2014 cannot be a mirror of the 1960s, for we have moved far beyond that bankrupt decade, but raw anger still has the potential to do huge damage. There is only one way to restore calm among the young: jobs. They have been left idle by a thoughtless government for ten long years. There will be a new government in a few weeks. Its immediate priority is a no-brainer: a revived economy, jobs and a massive investment in a better life for the poor.
The writer is Editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.