As the dust settles down on the just-concluded Lok Sabha elections, the first instinct of the Opposition, if the results go the BJP’s ways as all exit polls have predicted without exception, would be to blame the Election Commission and the Electronic Voting Machines as Congress chief Rahul Gandhi has already done. There would be the alibi of Prime Minister Modi having repeated some untruths many times over, making them stick.
Then, as the bitter truth sinks in, there would inevitably be an element of introspection, though they may not admit it. It is at that point that the Opposition parties must search within to decipher honestly what was wrong with their campaigning that catapulted the NDA to a second term.
There was a stage when assemblies in three northern states – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhatisgarh – had voted out the BJP and the Opposition seemed to have been sitting pretty. Public anger over agrarian mismanagement and rampant unemployment was also in full cry.
But the Opposition’s failure to agree on a prime ministerial challenger acceptable to all revealed the fragile nature of the challenge to NDA. What came out was a confused conglomerate with many contenders for the coveted office but no common minimum programme to talk about.
The impression that went around was that the Opposition had no credible alternative programme of action to run the country and all that it had was a common hatred for Modi who was undisputedly seen as a giant standing between them and power. That was hardly a good launching pad for an opposition aspiring to displace the Modi-led dispensation.
The BJP wanted desperately that the campaigning must swerve towards a Modi versus Rahul contest India-wide because that would give it a distinct advantage with the Congress chief looking ill-suited to replace Modi. That this was virtually achieved was a reality.
The Opposition, in general, opted for a negative campaign with Rahul ending every campaign speech with the slogan ‘Modi chor hai.’ Since this was not supported by credible evidence and had even been negated by the country’s highest court, Rahul’s slogan seemed empty and incredible.
But Rahul was not the only one hitting below the belt. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and Andhra chief minister Chandrababu Naidu were also running hugely negative campaigns calling the Prime Minister names. While Mamata was shooting off at a tangent through uncivil and obnoxious statements, Naidu’s comments evoked derision because he was part of the ruling NDA for long before he walked out on it thumping his chest.
Evidently, the consistently negative campaigning has irritated people at large. This would be borne out especially if the exit polls are true to predictions. It is true that Modi’s diatribe against the Nehru-Gandhi family for alleged misdemeanours also went somewhat overboard. Calling Rajiv Gandhi corrupt number one and fixing the spotlight on Rajiv’s family holiday nearly three decades ago with wife Sonia Gandhi’s Italian connections caused many eyebrows to rise.
But Modi and his comrade-in-arms Amit Shah working in unison drew up a campaign strategy that left the Opposition befuddled. It was focussed on a national security narrative in which the Modi government came out looking decisive and strong as against a Congress that was weak and indecisive when it came to protecting the national interest.
Doubtlessly, the retaliation against Pakistan through the Balakot aerial attacks on terrorist sanctuaries after the Pak-sponsored massacre of BSF personnel in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir made the desired impact on people’s minds. But it cannot be denied that had the Balakot mission by the Indian Air Force failed, the blame for it would have been heaped on Modi.
In giving the IAF the go-ahead, Modi took a calculated risk and triumphed in the end. That there were no voices of condemnation across the world was an index of how well the air strikes were handled diplomatically. As for the Opposition’s strategising, it was abysmal by any standards.
The self-appointed thakurs of the Opposition – Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, and Chandrababu Naidu – failed to garner support for the Opposition despite a seeming groundswell of anti-incumbency. It was as much due to their failings as to the extraordinary finger on the people’s pulse on the part of Modi.
Yet, it would be foolhardy to place too much importance on opinion polls which have small samples in such a vast country and rely on enumerators who are by and large ill-equipped and ill-trained. However, in the exit polls done this time around, there is complete unanimity that the victor would be the NDA led by BJP. That vests the polls with a greater measure of credibility.
The actual figures that emerge after the counting of votes may inevitably be closer to some than to others but the general direction is what is crucial. Indian democracy has matured in some ways but still has a way to go. Electoral reforms are imperative. But what is also crucial is that election issues must be real issues with content and emphasis. It is unfortunate that trivialities still rule the roost and the media too throws up non-issues to the exclusion of issues like the lack of governmental attention to the rape of the environment.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.