Electoral Mahabharata

The upset comes not in the shape of arrests which are treated as new normal but the way they have played out so far

Farrukh Khan Pitafi April 06, 2024
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and policy commentator. Follow his WhatsApp channel ‘Farrukh K Pitafi’ for the latest updates


Despite your valiant efforts to stay clear of the subject, Indian elections, being the world’s biggest exercise in procedural democracy, have the habit of sucking you in. This year’s Kurukshetra has the potential to eclipse what transpired aeons ago between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. So, against my better judgment, I endeavour to share with you my two cents on the matter. Why does my better judgment protest, you ask? Because clearly, our Indian readers, especially those of a pro-BJP bent, do not appreciate when a Pakistani pays any heed to Indian politics. But fear not. I have two antidotes for this. First, contrary to my usual instinct, I will try to be as objective as possible. For the second, keep reading till the end.

Let’s be frank. The BJP is miles ahead of its competitors and analysts in election strategies. We read trends, and they meticulously study opportunities to exploit them. Consider this. We dismissed the 2013 Muzaffarnagar Hindu-Muslim riots as a negative development. They discovered a chance to consolidate the disparate strata of the Hindu vote bank. We saw the negative fallout of the 2019 India-Pakistan post-Pulwama skirmishes. They found a welcome opportunity to whip up the nationalist sentiment and carry the day.

On top of it, there is the brand Modi. While the opposition parties in India would have you believe that the brand Modi is only a facade erected by a carefully controlled media, in truth, Modi has many things going for him. The first is the lore of a fakir who can move out of 7 Lok Kalyan Marg, the official residence of the Indian Premier, carrying only his jhola (knapsack) any time he wants. Whatever you say about the man, he has no record of personal financial corruption or possessing big assets. That in a country fraught with the accusation of financial corruption is saying something. Then, there is the image of a doer. In a country beset with governments formed by shaky coalitions, he led his party twice to almost coalition-free national victory. Of course, for this, he has too much to thank his brother-in-arms and Home Minister, Amit Shah as well. With the consolidation of power comes the ability to move mountains. And his team has used this power to assert India’s image abroad, both in international affairs and economics. This is where the role of client media comes in handy. Whatever blowbacks there might be in both these sectors, the media at large, excluding a few mavericks, is there to insulate the voter from their shocks.

Everything hunky dory then? Modi’s third term in the bag already? Well, that is what the BJP and Indian media tell you every day. Modi himself now raises the slogan ‘ab ki baar, char sau paar’ (this time, we cross the 400 mark). Remember, India’s lower house (Lok Sabha) has 543 contested seats, and the BJP-led NDA alliance currently has 353. Only the Congress party managed to cross the 400 mark, and that too in very exceptional circumstances following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984.

But things are not as cut and dry as the optics would suggest. Firstly, there is the incumbency factor. When you have ruled for ten years, you have to own everything, warts and all, like the ill-advised move to break parties to form state governments, and people get tired. Then there is the issue of succession. It is believed that Modi has an unstated rule about 75 as the retirement age. He turns 75 by the end of next year. So, who his successor might be? Yogi Adityanath, the controversial CM of Uttar Pradesh, with whom he has very little chemistry. Or Amit Shah? The party dynamics may not pan out according to his wishes once he leaves. And even if he stays beyond 75, the speculation about succession is likely to continue. It is an unsettled question that might impact the election outcome.

And when you are this powerful, it is easy to make bad mistakes. For instance, dismantling popular parties to form governments in states may bring home short-term dividends, but it creates local resentment and lumbers you with avoidable alliance liabilities. Alliances of this sort may also affect your own cadre, whose claim to seat share has to be overlooked for the collective good. More resentment. Then there is the problem of economics. Job creation has not taken off, inflation is high, and the suffering of the poor palpable. An army marches on its stomach, do not forget.

Then the Congress-led opposition has managed to do what was deemed impossible until recently. The INDIA alliance has united Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, Mamata Banerjee’s TMC, Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, Udhav Thackery’s Shiv Sena, Sharad Pawar’s NCP, Hemant Soren’s JMM, MK Stalin’s DMK and Sitaram Yechury’s CPI (Marxist) under one banner along with others. The elevation of the incumbent Congress President Malikarjun Kharge as the head of the INDIA coalition is also a masterstroke. Kharge belongs to a Dalit family in Karnataka and has a record of winning all elections except one.

Kejriwal’s arrest has only solidified the alliance. His party represents the working class intellectual capital, which is traditionally opposed to the alleged dynastic politics of the Congress and other old guard. The only loose cannon right now is Mayawati’s BSP in UP, which can work as a double-edged sword. Well, JDU’s Nitish Kumar also left the INDIA collective to rejoin the NDA, but his party has been losing steam.

India Today recently released its ‘Mood of the Nation’ survey recorded during the Ram Mandir inauguration days when the BJP was riding the tide of popularity. Even that showed the NDA underperforming relative to its 2019 victory by 18 seats. Remember, this is from the BJP-friendly media and pollsters.

And this was recorded before two devastating political developments. One of the Indian Supreme Court landmark judgment on the electoral bond issue which is being projected as the world’s greatest extortion racket run by the BJP. And the arrest of Hemant Soren, the former Chief Minister of Jharkhand, and Arvind Kejriwal, the sitting CM of Delhi. The upset comes not in the shape of the arrests which are treated as the new normal but the way they have played out so far. While many are seeing them as an attempted power grab, it has made the alliance more desperate to win.

So, what is the outcome likely to be? When the system is so opaque, there is a great chance of misreading the omens. As someone who has been burnt twice, I have learned a trick or two. Two men are my teachers. Stephen Hawking and Donald Trump. Hawking once betted against his winning the Nobel Prize. So even if he lost the bet, he won the prize. Likewise, Donald Trump’s victory taught me that even the most dreaded outcomes can have positive results. So, I am rooting for a Modi win this time because it has no downside. I don’t think the Congress and the INDIA coalition would mind. I have rooted for them many times in the past. Also, perhaps if he wins, the quest for a legacy may compel him to build peace with Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 6th, 2024.

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