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  Opinion   Columnists  15 Apr 2024  Shikha Mukerjee | Poll promises vs delivery amid rise in polarisation

Shikha Mukerjee | Poll promises vs delivery amid rise in polarisation

The writer is a senior journalist in Kolkata.
Published : Apr 16, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Apr 16, 2024, 12:05 am IST

As the 2024 Lok Sabha elections loom, the political landscape is rife with tension and uncertainty.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a public meeting ahead of Lok Sabha elections, at Ambasamudram, in Tirunelveli district, Monday, April 15, 2024. (PTI Photo/R Senthilkumar)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a public meeting ahead of Lok Sabha elections, at Ambasamudram, in Tirunelveli district, Monday, April 15, 2024. (PTI Photo/R Senthilkumar)

Elections serve many purposes. By definition, elections are polarising. In multi-party elections, the competition for votes is fierce because fragmented interests and the representation of these blocs creates greater tensions and confrontations. The 2024 Lok Sabha elections about to get underway will be a great war, of words, principles and agendas, in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi will face the toughest challenge of his political life.

Having established himself as the “face” of India, on various certificates and other such government documents and made politics a personal contest where he pits himself as the great helmsman against his enemies and “guarantees” to defeat them and their allegedly nefarious plans and activities, the 2024 election will be the biggest gamble that the Bharatiya Janata Party has ever risked. It is understandable that the BJP has invested all its eggs in one basket, namely the persona of its only leader, Narendra Modi, whose electrifying appeal delivered two successive terms in office at the Centre. The 2024 election results will be significant for the BJP’s future.

Since the 1980s, the party has promised the electorate three things and grown phenomenally in the years since it became a mainstream national party. The three pillars of the past, and of Mr Modi’s 10 years in power, are the materialisation of the Ram Mandir, the mirage of Shining India-Viksit Bharat and prioritising the mystique of religion over the temporal.

As the third election to ensure Mr Modi’s return to power at the top approaches, there are signs of anxiety as the old narrative of identity-based polarisation is refashioned to attack the Opposition.

The parties of the anti-BJP Opposition, collectively and separately, are being accused of pursuing a “Mughal” agenda over eating fish and meat. By making purity and pollution in terms of religious practice central to the Indian election, Mr Modi’s counter to the Opposition is to stir up the sentiment of core BJP voters and the 17 per cent fence-sitters, who are not sure how they will vote in this election, according to a pre-poll survey by the highly-regarded Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

The Prime Minister and lead campaigner for the BJP’s choice of fighting over fish is as illogical as it is inexplicable, unless his agenda is to distract voters by making noise to drive them to a point where error is likely in arriving at a judgment on which political formation will work best for their current and future needs. By diverting from the crisis of the cost of living and joblessness that is an overwhelming concern for the bottom half of India’s 97 crore registered voters, does the BJP and its leader Narendra Modi hope to get past the winning post in the 2024 general election?

The highly regarded Lokniti-CSDS survey found that the bottom 50 per cent, including sections of the middle class, are concerned about jobs (27 per cent) and price rise (23 per cent). By that same measure, the bottom of the pyramid is neither likely to be beguiled by the prospect of the celebration of Ram Navami at the newly-built Ram Mandir in Ayodhya (8 per cent) that Mr Modi inaugurated with much fanfare nor enchanted by a future Hindu Rashtra (2 per cent). The bottom of the pyramid does not have the money.

The deliberate avoidance of telling Indians how precisely the next Modi government will guarantee them better food, better wages, better employment and far more opportunities, better health services, better education and a greater sense of well-being makes sense for the BJP. Without a five-year deadline, the Modi government, if re-elected, can duck the problem of accountability. The Viksit Bharat guarantee has to be fulfilled by 2047; the $5 trillion target has a vague 2027-28 time-frame; in other words, Mr Modi and the BJP have raised expectations without promising delivery.

Elections, however, are an appraisal of performance; after 10 years in power, the buck stops with Mr Modi. The opinion culled by the Lokniti-CSDS survey shows a sharp but not vertiginous decline in Mr Modi’s approval ratings. Just under half of Indians, about 48 per cent Indians, think he is the best; the rest are not so certain. A little more than quarter, about 27 per cent, think Rahul Gandhi is a good alternative. For most voters, the most urgent problems are being stuck in dead-end jobs with low wages and no prospects making it difficult to meet the cost of living, with all its consequences.

The fault does not lie entirely with Mr Modi; the fault is of a political strategy that worked very successfully in 2014 and 2019 of conflating the party with the persona of the benevolent but authoritative leader oozing masculinity. He can thunder on about how he will pick out the corrupt and lock up them up after re-election, but that may not cut it. The forced disclosure that the BJP received Rs 6,060 crores from electoral bonds hangs like an albatross from the party’s neck, as does the alleged connection between the Adani Group’s meteoric rise and the enormous amounts that the banks have written off as bad loans. Coupled with the targeting of Opposition leaders and the freeze on the Congress Party’s bank accounts by the income-tax department, the Modi government has unintentionally prompted voters to think again.

More intriguingly, the concept of the “washing machine”, first articulated by Mamata Banerjee, has captivated the popular imagination. Voters seem irritated by the unprincipled politics that allows the BJP to operate as a cleaning outfit where politicians from the Opposition tarred for being corrupt are sanitised after switching sides. The unintended consequence of the BJP’s washing machine politics is the perhaps irreparable reputational damage it has done to itself.

The Lokniti-CSDS survey found that voters are turned off by the politics of defection that the BJP has perfected as a mechanism of seizing power by destabilising Opposition governments as in Maharashtra or earlier Madhya Pradesh. The arrests and investigations by “agencies”, including the NIA, CBI, ED and income-tax department, has in public perception converted into tools of the ruling party, like the police in the states, to be abused for political purposes.

The 2024 Lok Sabha election will be probably the toughest test that the popular sovereign, the voter, has ever faced in Independent India. It will be a fight of the people and their expressed anxieties versus the mechanisms for distracting noise generated by vast armies of “keyboard warriors” intent on stoking polarising sentiment to induce the necessary error of judgment to uphold Prime Minister Modi as the only alternative against a ragtag Opposition.

Tags: prime minister narendra modi, 2024 lok sabha elections, polarisation