2019 Polls: Five Takeaways as Modi-Rahul Square Off at ‘Interval’

Indian audiences love the unique concept of ‘interval’ in Bollywood films. As they take a popcorn/cola break, people trade quick reviews and guess “ab interval kay baad kya hoga” (how will the story unfold after the break?). So often we hear people saying “arre, interval tak mazedaar hai, par uske baad picture bundle hai” (the film is good fun until the interval, but boring after that), while exiting the cinema hall.

We have now hit the ‘interval’ in the 12-week-long electoral theatre of 2019. So, it’s time to exchange gossip, hedge bets, and tee-up for the ‘back 9’ (please indulge me as I mix Bollywood and golf metaphors). Here, then, are my five takeaways at half- time.

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One: Modi, Strong, Muscular, Hindutva Icon & Anti-Intellectual

Prime Minister Modi has transformed from the vikas purush (development man) of 2014, to the strongman of 2019. His campaign pitch is all about bashing Pakistan and exterminating terrorists. He is taking liberties with the truth, calling opponents “weak and treacherous, even traitors”. He does not bother to hide his disdain for intellectuals. He has bullied the media into a choreographed submission.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a rally in Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal, on Feb. 8, 2019. 

Prime Minister Modi has clearly lost those centrists/liberals who had vocally campaigned for him in 2014. That could lop off almost five percentage points from the BJP’s 31 percent vote share in the previous election. On the other hand, he has created a deeper, more fanatical engagement with ‘bhakts’ (religious/political fans), increasing the decibel level, but not adding much to the vote share. While he has gained followers among the poor who have benefited from some of his welfare schemes, he has shrunk among unemployed youth, Dalits, Muslims and other minorities. He is clearly the favourite of first-time urban voters.

Once you do all the additions and subtractions, I reckon his vote share could stay the same, or perhaps increase by a couple of percentage points, to about 33 percent, in these polls.

Also Read: Congress Can Learn How BJP Used/Poached Regional Allies

Two: Rahul Gandhi, Coming of Political Age

Once seen as diffident and aloof, Rahul Gandhi is now relishing the thrust and parry of realpolitik. He is the stark opposite of Modi, a leader who seems to respect diversity –even dissent. While Modi enjoys micro-managing and spewing statistics, Rahul seems to focus on the big picture, evident from the manifesto that his team has authored.

Steadily, Rahul is attracting fresh talent, and neutralising those intellectuals who were once hostile to him. But he still appears a bit reticent about dealing with potential allies and peers from other parties. I reckon he needs to work on those ‘back-channel skills’ that are critical in politics, that allow you to build a pick-up-the-phone-and-talk chemistry with frenemies.

An opposition parties meeting in New Delhi on Feb. 27, 2019.

Also, while Rahul’s spoken Hindi has improved considerably, he is restricted in using colloquial, rabble-rousing, earthy prose. He clearly comes into his own during informal interactions in English – witness his charming exchange with women students at Stella Maris College in Chennai. This also explains his higher approval rating in the South, although he’s gradually winning points across the country. While Rahul is yet to play par (golf again!) against Modi, he is becoming a serious contender.

Three: BJP Wrapped Around a Cult Personality

Once upon a time, the BJP used to be a party driven by a broad-based/collective leadership, and wedded to RSS’s ideology. Today, it’s astonishingly Modi-centric, dominated totally by his personality cult. Nobody dares to challenge Modi, even indirectly. Not one murmur was heard when the founders of the party – from Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi to Sumitra Mahajan – were visibly snubbed. The party has also lost its sense of Vajpayee-esque humour – these days, it’s always angry, morose, mocking, smirking.

Modi’s effervescent often divisive politics, scaffolded by Amit Shah’s singular focus on execution, has allowed the party to expand in every part of the country, except for the South, where it is still struggling. His hard nationalism and development rhetoric continue to whip up magic in those states where the BJP is unburdened by ‘double anti-incumbency’, most notably in West Bengal and Odisha. But wherever its two-tier centre-cum-state rule has been exposed to the people, it’s been buffeted by mounting disenchantment.

The party’s anti-dote to that is a deeper regress into inflammatory Hindutva, exemplified so sharply by the nomination of Pragya Singh Thakur in Bhopal, and an unrestrained diatribe from Adityanath (sorry, I shall not fall for the ruse of calling them Sadhvi and Yogi, both of which are revered honorifics in my tolerant Hindu religion). These two, along with a dozen other radical specimen, could become political Frankenstein(s).

BJP candidate Sadhvi Pragya Singh at party workers’ meeting in Bhopal, on April 18, 2019. 

Four: Congress Reclaiming the 25/25/100 Political Watermark

The Congress is showing clear signs of revival after its humiliating defeat in 2014, when its vote share had plummeted to a perilous 19 percent. If just a few more percentage points had gotten shaved off from this low level, Modi would have realised his dream of a Congress-mukt (ie, free) Bharat. But with a smart pullback in half a dozen states and several by-elections, the party has shown its will to fight. It’s also winning back its core support base of secular Hindus and disenfranchised minorities, including Dalits.

Here’s my wager for May 2019: Congress should reclaim the 25/25/100 “politically relevant watermark” that it held through 1996-2014 – ie, 25+ percent of the national vote, 25 percent of the MLAs across state assemblies, and 100+ seats in Lok Sabha. While this “political minima” will ensure its survival, it may not catapult it to Raisina Hill in these elections. Nonetheless, the Congress will have the momentum to take a shot at power in 2024, almost equal to the 200+ mandate it won in 2009.

Five: The Regional Juggernaut

Regional parties are giving stiff resistance to Modi in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal and Odisha. They are set to win large majorities here, effectively confining Modi’s pickings to states in which he is up against the Congress. The other peculiar reality is how a regional party’s footprint abruptly stops at its own borders – for example, Telugu Desam is non-existent in Telangana, just as TRS is confined to its bailiwick.

While most of these regional titans are potential Congress allies in a coalition government that could be formed in May, they are natural foes of both the BJP and Congress in later battles, as the national parties try to expand their footprint across the country. But we shall leave that political treatise for another year, another poll.

For now, the Congress has a clear edge in attracting post-poll regional allies, provided the Congress itself is in the hunt with about 135-150 seats. But if the BJP goes above 180, it shall find a magical “recalibration” of several regional parties’ hostility towards itself!

Toh ab, kya hoga interval kay baad (how will the story unfold after the interval)? Well, as the iconic star once said, picture abhi baaki hai merey dost (quite a bit of the film is yet to be screened, my friend) – so, stay glued!

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