LAST WEEK PARLIAMENT felt like the final days of the school academic year. Everyone was in both a reflective and celebratory mode, particularly Lok Sabha members. Celebratory because the assigned work was finally over—at least for the time being— and reflective because there was no knowing whether they would pass or fail the re-election test this summer. The Rajya Sabha was unendingly disrupted and did no work because opposition parties competed among themselves to demonstrate their anti-Government credentials and stall all pending legislation. But even here, there was a note of both concern and anticipation. No one was really sure of the future.
In 2014, when the old Lok Sabha finished its term, there was certainty on one count: that the incumbent Government wasn’t coming back to power. Most people expected a fractured Parliament with the BJP having an edge, but only the most optimistic expected it to muster a majority on its own.
This week the mood is both similar and different. Conventional wisdom and the extra bounce in the step of Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party MPs suggest that it is going to extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the BJP to replicate its spectacular 2014 showing in Uttar Pradesh, when it won 73 of its 80 Lok Sabha seats. The SP-BSP members and their Trinamool Congress hangers-on believe that the BJP will be completely decimated in India’s largest state. The Congress, on the other hand, seems a little more circumspect. It is confident it will do well and much better than 2014, but there is no certainty about numbers. Its euphoria over Priyanka Gandhi performing an electoral miracle isn’t reflected in the conversations in Central Hall.
It is the BJP mood that is more interesting. If the media is to be believed, the ruling party is on the backfoot and agonising over an imminent loss of power at the Centre. Certainly there are MPs who are worried, but the concern is less over the election outcome than with their prospects of securing re-nomination by the party. In 2014, the BJP was a bit casual with giving tickets in seats it considered unwinnable. This was particularly so in Uttar Pradesh. However, thanks to the fierce Modi wave, nearly all of them won. Some have turned out to be good constituency MPs, but others have under-performed. This time, to minimise the effects of local anti-incumbency, the party may select new candidates. Predictably, that worries many sitting MPs, although they try and put up a brave face and appear unconcerned.
Apart from uncertainties over ticket distribution, the BJP morale seems quite upbeat. Over the past month, the Prime Minister has been travelling incessantly and speaking at public meetings all over the country. At almost each of his meetings, the crowds have been spectacular and the numbers seem to be swelling each week. Maybe the fact of Narendra Modi drawing big crowds isn’t news any longer. However, those who monitor the meetings—and live internet feeds make the task easier— will see that Modi’s connect with his audience is immediate and real. His appeal seems intact and, unlike 2014 when he was still an unknown quantity in large parts of India, almost every Indian has a view on him.
So far, Modi has been quite unsparing in his attacks on the very idea of a mahagathbandhan and the leadership of the Congress. His assault on the entitlement culture of dynastic parties is savage. In places such as West Bengal, he has struck a chord by targeting overbearing chief ministers such as Mamata Banerjee. Modi has also placed emphasis on his Government’s achievements, particularly its record in creating the architecture of a welfare state. Women are specially being targeted by Modi using Swachh Bharat and the cooking gas scheme as ammunition. Anti-corruption is also one of Modi’s battering rams against leaders with a reputation for being casual over corrupt practices.
However, there is one aspect of the Modi messaging that still seems deficient. It is still not entirely clear what hope he is holding out for the future. A successful campaign has to sell a big dream—sometimes even a catchphrase such as ‘achche din’. As of now, the idea of ‘New India’ isn’t being backed up by anything more than a commitment to build on the foundation created over the past five years. Maybe this is something the Prime Minister is keeping till the time that formal electioneering begins, but this is a gap in the BJP campaign that has to be rapidly addressed.
As of now, I see no reason to revise my belief that this is going to be a presidential election.