TILL THE FOR­EST MOVES TO THE CAS­TLE...

Ra­jasthan, Mad­hya Pradesh and Ch­hat­tis­garh will sig­nal whether the Lok Sabha poll will be a real fight or a con­test for con­test’s sake

The New Indian Express - - EDITORIAL - SANTWANA BHAT­TACHARYA Po­lit­i­cal Ed­i­tor, The New In­dian Ex­press Email: santwana@newin­di­an­ex­press.com

AT he cur­rent po­lit­i­cal air has a cer­tain tight­ness. Soon, the soil may shake in un­pre­dictable ways, a flux that will last till May 2019. The two na­tional par­ties ad­mit, in pri­vate, that Ra­jasthan, Mad­hya Pradesh and Ch­hat­tis­garh will sig­nal whether the Lok Sabha poll will be a real fight or a con­test for con­test’s sake.

BJP pres­i­dent Amit Shah nat­u­rally wants to pin the nar­ra­tive on the sec­ond theme. He is claim­ing a big slice of the fu­ture for his party: at least the next 50 years! Congress chief Rahul Gandhi will con­tinue to make frontal at­tacks on the BJP tri­umvi­rate—Modi, Shah, Jait­ley—to give it the air of a bat­tle royale. But what does the ground tell us?

Well, the ground has a bad habit of shift­ing. It shifts over time, also at the last mo­ment, of­ten on tech­ni­cal mi­cro-pol­i­tics, like equa­tions in­ter­nal to an al­liance, the caste ma­trix, vote-cut­ters, booth-level strength, cadre mood. Macro is­sues, the econ­omy or the gov­er­nance re­port card, can take a sec­ondary sta­tus.

In 2014, al­most all pa­ram­e­ters, mi­cro and macro, favoured Naren­dra Modi. Elec­tions are never the same: 2019 will not be 2014, nor can it be 1971 or 1977. There was a time, for in­stance, the Delhi Univer­sity Stu­dents Union elec­tions used to be a bell­wether of sorts. The vot­ing stu­dents were from all over In­dia and from all sec­tions of so­ci­ety, be­sides the well-heeled Del­hi­ites.

This time, the sig­nals are not as clear. The un­savoury EVM con­tro­versy apart—the EC has dis­tanced it­self say­ing the ma­chines were pri­vately procured (!) by the DU au­thor­i­ties—it’s not a clean sweep by the ABVP. The NSUI man­aged just one post, but both sides in­creased their vote­share. Also, the AAP stu­dent wing’s tie-up with AISA (which is more-Left-thanSFI), came a crop­per.

But all that may not give us an inkling about which way even Delhi will go. Arvind Ke­jri­wal’s AAP regime, de­spite its agit-prop an­tics, en­er­vat­ing run-ins with the L-G and at­tri­tion from its ranks, does not ap­pear to have lost ground to­tally. Its so­cial sec­tor de­liv­ery favours it. Plus, the Congress does not look on a re­vival curve and the BJP ap­pears to be nei­ther here nor there.

More grey ar­eas. Lost in Shah’s head­line-grab­bing rhetoric of a “50-year-rule” and 300 seats in 2019 was a talk given at the na­tional ex­ec­u­tive: an as-

The Congress, though for once try­ing to work as a team, has lit­tle time to de­vote to keep­ing the Op­po­si­tion unity plat­form in event mode, like it did post-Kar­nataka. It knows it’s in a straight fight with the BJP in the three states that will shape the 2019 nar­ra­tive. But it’s a dicey pitch

sid­u­ously de­liv­ered coach­ing class on the gov­ern­ment’s flag­ship wel­fare schemes, “the good work done”. This mo­ti­va­tional ther­apy ses­sion was meant for booth-level work­ers, the ‘panna pra­mukhs’ et al, Shah’s in­fantry. (For Shah, 2019 is as much his elec­tion as PM Modi’s.)

On the other hand, there seems to be an odd dis­so­nance be­tween the high com­mand’s sales pitch and what the BJP MPs feel (of course, many are fear­ful not get­ting an­other ticket). An in­sider re­counted, “Even some of our MPs and MLAs are not aware of cen­tral wel­fare schemes ... the Congress is build­ing such a false pro­pa­ganda! Our cadres are also watch­ing it on TV and get­ting de­mor­alised...”

The BJP isn’t too wor­ried about hot-but­ton is­sues like Rafale or the lynch­ing sto­ries, how­ever hor­rific. Ap­par­ently, those is­sues mat­ter only to the lib­eral chat­ter­ing classes, who never vote BJP in any case. As for the burn­ing fuel prices and the tum­bling ru­pee, the BJP take is: the econ­omy is pick­ing up, so would the job mar­ket by mid-2019. A col­laps­ing bank­ing sec­tor, the NPA bur­den, the widen­ing cur­rent ac­count deficit—these ab­strac­tions don’t res­onate with the vot­ers. But fuel prices and the ru­pee do. (The PM has sum­moned his eco­nomic brains trust.)

An­other is­sue get­ting sharp fo­cus is Dalit dis­af­fec­tion. By­polls have shown, Mayawati has the abil­ity to har­ness and chan­nelise it to an Op­po­si­tion pool. The BJP’s tac­tics, there­fore, are to en­sure there’s no Dalit con­sol­i­da­tion. The sud­den re­lease of Bhim Army’s Chan­drashekhar Azad ‘Ra­van’, for whom Mayawati has no love lost, is one such move to di­vide and con­fuse Dalit vot­ers, which may pay off. Pro­vided vi­o­lent savarna re­tal­i­a­tion on the restora­tion of the SC/ST (Preven­tion of Atroc­i­ties) Act doesn’t skew the pic­ture. Di­vid­ing the Sa­ma­jwadi Party fam­ily and votes is a par­al­lel strat­egy.

The Congress, though for once try­ing to work as a team, has lit­tle time to de­vote to keep­ing the Op­po­si­tion unity plat­form in event mode, like it did post-Kar­nataka. It knows it’s in a straight fight with the BJP in the three states that will shape the 2019 nar­ra­tive. But it’s a dicey pitch. In Ra­jasthan, its ral­lies have been at­tract­ing huge crowds, but in Mad­hya Pradesh Shivraj Singh Chouhan is far more vis­i­ble than any of the Congress’s op­tional trio—Ka­mal Nath, Jy­oti­ra­ditya Scin­dia and Digvi­jaya Singh. And the GOP is look­ing very much like BJP Lite, ask­ing to build gausha­las in ev­ery panchayat. As for Ch­hat­tis­garh, what the Congress is do­ing or plans to do is known only to the party!

It’s not as if Rahul isn’t work­ing hard, but his at­tempts to shat­ter the BJP nar­ra­tive are lim­ited to the me­dia. Once the biggest or­gan­i­sa­tion in In­dia with of­fices in ev­ery kasba and block, the Congress is a shadow of the past. It’s yet to gal­vanise or cre­ate a booth-level work­force. A vi­tal or­gan­i­sa­tional deficit: it’s from the ground up that you need to ag­gre­gate pub­lic dis­sat­is­fac­tion into votes.

And un­like the BJP pre-2014, the Congress hasn’t been able to take any of its ac­cu­sa­tions to a log­i­cal con­clu­sion. It thus ac­quires the el­e­ment of a smear cam­paign, which the BJP is re­turn­ing bul­let for bul­let. Bet on see­ing more ex­posés—some may click, some sow more con­fu­sion. Per­haps enough to leave Modi as ‘the’ pan-In­dian mass leader, with a bit jaded but still match­less or­a­tory. Even if this time it can hardly be a solo show.

If the ob­jec­tive is to pre­serve busi­ness con­tracts then pub­lic crit­i­cism is not a means to en­gage. But if the in­ten­tion is to sup­port po­lit­i­cal lib­er­al­i­sa­tion and civil so­ci­ety actors then pub­lic crit­i­cism is im­por­tant to sig­nal to do­mes­tic actors and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity that Saudi poli­cies are un­ac­cept­able

SOUMYADIP SINHA

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