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  Opinion   Columnists  20 May 2024  Shikha Mukerjee | Amid great expectations, voters keep all guessing

Shikha Mukerjee | Amid great expectations, voters keep all guessing

The writer is a senior journalist in Kolkata.
Published : May 21, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : May 21, 2024, 12:05 am IST

With just two weeks left before results, the BJP and Congress vie for dominance in a contentious 2024 Lok Sabha election.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public meting for Lok Sabha elections, in Cuttack, Monday, May 20, 2024. (PTI Photo)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public meting for Lok Sabha elections, in Cuttack, Monday, May 20, 2024. (PTI Photo)

The fugue state in which India finds itself is rapidly approaching its end, with five phases of the seven-phase election over and the results due to be known two weeks from now, on June 4. One part of the population believes that the polity will be made anew while the other part equally firmly believes that there will be no change.

The endlessly creative efforts of the contestants in this political fight have touched new heights in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, led by the BJP’s singular star campaigner, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The problem with his creativity is that he keeps reinventing the same wheel; sadly, each new reiteration is uglier than the previous one. The Congress, as his specially selected target of attack, is better at saying some things differently, like revising the idea of unity in diversity-secularism as “Nafrat ki bazaar me Mohabbat ki Dukan”, that it distilled into a less fancy slogan — Bharat Jodo — but its fallback position is a 25-point programme that lists problems and solutions it will implement after the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance defeats the BJP.

Neither Mr Modi nor Rahul Gandhi and leaders of the parties in the INDIA bloc have said that one thing that grabbed the imagination of a nation close to saturation with the endlessly repetitive stump speeches over an unconscionably long election. Not one party has said anything as concise and electrifying as “Garibi Hatao”, Indira Gandhi’s slogan in the 1971 election.

Compared to it, the 2014 slogan of Mr Modi and the BJP, “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas”, was almost florid; it overdid the elaboration but seemed innocuous enough. By 2019, Mr Modi’s slogan acquired two additional and rather sinister phrases that revealed the direction in which the nation had been steered in the first five years and the promise he made to go further and faster along the same track by earning “Sabka Vishwas” (Everyone’s Trust) and “Sabka Prayas” (Everyone’s Effort).

The everyman who was at the core of Mr Modi’s plans for India’s future was never meant to be every citizen; his attention has been unwavering in identifying the Hindu majority which he and the Sangh Parivar invariably, though mistakenly, believe are fervent Hindutva fans. The controversial Citizenship Amendment Act that specifically excludes Muslims as one of the identities that can apply for acceptance as Indians confirms the limits of the Modi government in reconstructing India into Bharat, whatever that switch in usage may mean in reality.

Call it India or Bharat, the reality will not change that after 73 years and despite the 10 years of incredible effort 80 crore Indians need five kgs of free foodgrains to just about subsist. The vision of “Viksit Bharat”, a fully developed country that had joined the top-ranked three economies of the world promised by Mr Modi in his opening phase of the 2024 Lok Sabha election was jettisoned in favour of the tried and tested formulaic venomous campaign against the Congress and the regional and smaller parties who have been consistent about campaigning to restore India as a multi-religious multi-cultural civilisation that is pro-poor, though not anti-rich.

Bombarded by creative interpretations of the Congress vision, shared by the partners of the INDIA bloc, of easing the cost-of-living crisis, tackling unemployment and restoring social stability by defeating the vague goal of Viksit Bharat fleshed out by the divisive majoritarianism of the BJP, the voter has had every reason to feel depressed. That is what it looked like as the Election Commission released figures of what percentage of voters had bothered to go to the polling booth in the first two phases in April.

Then came the revisions in voter turnout that kept raising the numbers of people who had participated in the election. This was followed by a challenge filed in the Supreme Court by the Association of Democratic Rights that there was something amiss with the slow creep in numbers.

Given that about 78 per cent of Indians use smartphones and are avid consumers of social media, including messaging apps, even the smallest tweak in campaign content is immediately communicated to millions of voters.

Voter appetite however seems to be insatiable despite so much fast-changing information to consume on a daily basis, which seems to create the demand that politicians must satisfy. To feed this need, it was entirely predictable that the Modi-led BJP would revert to hard-selling the Hindutva agenda by inventive interpretations of what the other side did not, in reality, say. The spin on women’s gold hoards and sacred “mangalsutras”, inheritiance tax, putting the so-called “Babri lock” on the newly-consecrated Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, bulldozing the structure, deducting benefits of reservation from the Scheduled Castes and Tribes and OBCs to transfer these benefits to Muslims, ban on cow slaughter, even liberation of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, was more and more of the same spiel that Mr Modi and his team of hate campaigners have delivered over the last 10 years.

In all fairness to Indian voters, the same message is what they have been hearing from the BJP ever since it was born in 1984 and the launch of the Ram Mandir expedition.

The noise that Mr Modi and his party made should have been enough to drown out the Opposition, turning the 2024 Lok Sabha election into a no-surprises win. That strangely has not happened. For starters, the Congress has not been deflected from its “sankalp” (resolve) to bring India back on the rails to dealing with the price of potatoes, gas cylinders and healthcare. The regional and smaller parties, harassed by arrests, incarcerations and vitriol about being wholly committed to corruption, seem to have survived to the point that the Modi campaign keeps veering off the central theme because it is forced to go down the byways tackling the challenge of an assortment of state ruling parties determined to prevent the BJP from winning the maximum seats in these states.

Instead of being a headless entity, the Opposition has turned into a hydra-headed one. The flood of credible and incredible estimates of which side is winning and which side is losing keeps rising despite the best efforts of the tireless campaigner that Mr Modi is to keep control over the narrative. As high hopes of winning energise both the sides, it is obvious that no side is prepared to be the loser. The unknown quantity in this competition of great expectations is the enigmatic voter, whose preference and why nobody quite knows.


Tags: 2024 lok sabha elections, voter turnout, prime minister narendra modi