´India shining´ and ´feel good factor´ are the slogans of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), as they prepare for the Lok Sabha (lower house of the Indian parliament) elections in April-May 2004. ‘India shining’ had been coined following the recent upswing in the economy which registered 8.5 growth rates in last quarter of 2003. BJP´s success in three out of the four state assembly elections (Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh) too drummed up this ‘feel good factor’. The party says that it is going to the people on issues like development, a stable coalition government and the leadership of Prime Minister AB Vajpayee. The question, however, is whether these poll planks would be able to generate a pro-incumbency wave in favour of the BJP-led NDA.
The main opposition party, the Congress, has stepped up its attack on the BJP´s publicity blitz by launching the ‘India Cheated’ campaign. The party accuses the BJP of trying to ‘cover up its glaring failures’ and believes that BJP’s ‘feel good balloon’ would be punctured at the Lok Sabha polls. To re-enforce their case, the Congress is highlighting the first time negative employment growth that the country has seen during the NDA years with unemployment crossing the ten million mark. The Congress also debunks claims of high GDP growth rates, maintaining that during the NDA’s five-year rule, the growth rate was just five percent, and it was only in the last quarter of 2003 that it read 8.5 percent. The Congress is confident that the BJP reached its peak in 1999 and that the anti-incumbency factor is strong this time around to unseat them from power.
Looking at India’s electoral history, it is seen that overarching political planks have generated waves in favour of one or other political party for two decades since the 1970s. In 1971, the Congress gained a land slide victory on ‘liberation of Bangladesh’ as its poll plank. It was the ‘anti-Emergency’ wave that decimated the Congress in the 1977 elections. This was followed by the ‘Bring Indira back’ slogan which swept the polls for the Congress in the 1979 national elections. In 1984, it was the assassination of Indira Gandhi that generated a sympathy wave for the Congress. The beginnings of coalition politics too rested on the issue of ‘Bofors’, with the National Front coming to power in 1989 under VP Singh’s prime ministership with its campaign against the Congress. The 1992 elections rode on BJP´s ‘rath yatra’ campaign on Ayodhya for sometime but swung last minute in favour of the Congress in the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi´s assassination.
The election scene has drastically changed since the 1996 Lok Sabha polls. Even though it was firing on all cylinders, the BJP could not gain absolute majority in the House and collapsed within 13 days of coming to power. A ragtag Third Front government chugged on for two subsequent years. The general elections in 1998 again gave BJP a truncated majority and this time it was able to run a government for 13 months with help of its coalition partners. However, Jayalalitha’s exit from the BJP-led coalition forced another general election in 1999 which again threw the same verdict. This time around the BJP toned down its political agenda and evolved a ‘common minimum programme’ for the coalition and has managed thereafter to run its full course in power.
A larger picture thus emerges – that poll planks which use to swing elections one way or the other are having less of an impact since the 1996 general elections. Instead of ‘waves’, it is better electoral management and formidable alliances that become decisive factors for the success of political parties in Indian elections.
With the political monsoon having once again arrived, one can expect the standard line-up of issues to be dragged out of the electoral closet for airing. Corruption is one such issue that dominates during electioneering. The ruling government tries to sell its clean image, while the opposition rakes up corrupt deeds of the party in power. For now it would be safe to suggest that the issue as such has lost its ability to move the masses. The second favourite is the spectre of terrorism. Earlier the issue was raised in the context of Punjab and now it is done with reference to Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast. Surprisingly, left extremist violence which has been there since independence has never become a national poll plank in the country. In the context of terrorism, hatred against Pakistan is whipped up for its role in ‘aiding and abetting cross- border terrorism’ against India. Pakistan-bashing is an easy key to turn to generate popular and momentary support of the man on the street.
Construction of the ‘Ram Mandir’ at Ayodhya is another issue that gets milked at every political festivity. The BJP had a phenomenal rise in the mid-eighties due to this single issue. However, after its cadre destroyed the ‘Babri Masjid’ on 6 December 1992, the party has been unable to generate much political euphoria by ‘selling’ god. Even though the BJP makes political noises about the construction of the temple calling it the party’s top political agenda, the issue no more remains an electoral trump-card for the party, which is why today it is so willing to draw a contrast between the BJP agenda and the agenda of the ruling National Democratic Alliance.
Then there are some minority-related poll planks which are drummed up by the BJP to mobilise ‘majority’ votes. Enforcement of the uniform civil code, bringing the anti-conversion bill, ban on cow slaughter, ban on polygamy, and abrogation of minority character to the Aligarh Muslim University are some issues that come up time and again during election-time. While the BJP canvasses by trying to get the ‘majority’ votes, the Congress campaigns against it to lure the ‘minority’ votes. However, none of these issues seem to have the punch left in them to electrify the masses. There are also some patriotic planks such as the foreign origin of Congress president Sonia Gandhi that is raised to evoke national pride. Similarly the abrogation of article 370 of the constitution (which gives special treatment to Jammu and Kashmir) is raised to whip up patriotic emotions. At times, illegal migration from Bangladesh is raised to warn of the dangers to the country’s demographic profile.
This time, the newfound rapprochement with Pakistan has toned down many poll planks which once formed the BJP´s core propaganda package. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee´s promise to President Pervez Musharraf has led to a scaling down of anti-Pakistan rhetoric by the BJP, including on cross-border terrorism and Kashmir. Some believe that the prime minister´s commitment to Pakistan has taken out the sails from the BJP´s boat. Electorates this time may miss out Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani’s carefully crafted anti-Pakistan utterances, which have been the highlights of his campaigns during the past several years. The NDA is saying that it would campaign this time lauding the achievements of its rule. Kashmir, which used to be the war cry of the BJP, is sold as a state returning to normalcy due to the Centre’s policies. The coalition is lauding its achievements of holding talks with the separatist groups of Kashmir and hints it is even ready to talk to the militants. The NDA is also endorsing Srinagar’s Mufti government´s healing-touch policy of freeing and rehabilitating the militants.
Coming back to the theme to electioneering this time around as set by the BJP, it remains to be seen whether ‘India Shining’ or ‘India Cheated’ will do the trick. The BJP argues that India is on a roll, its economy is growing, industrialisation is taking place, agriculture is giving good returns and every one is feeling ‘good’. Those who emphasise ‘India cheated’ argue that the people still lack basic amenities and the country remains water-and-power-starved. More than a quarter of the populace continues to live below the poverty line, unemployment is on the rise, prices of essential commodities are rocketing, social tension has increased and atrocities against women and minorities are on rise.
Overall, the safer poll conclusion to make at this stage would be that India is cheated by its own politicians who have contributed nothing than gloom and pessimism everywhere. The debate remains inconclusive. The election this time is unique because no political party has any ace up its sleeve to turn the election around in its favour. This perhaps is the first election where both political parties and the electorate knows that it is not going to be poll planks but political alignments that would decide who rules India.