Hua to Hua – guide to LS polls 2019

No election, that too in India, is the same. Twists and turns mark every such mammoth exercise. In this edition of Lok Sabha election, the seventeenth, the election was announced on March 10, first vote was cast on April 11 and the last on May 19 late evening and during this period Indian voters were witness to unprecedented acts – from a non-political interview to fielding of terror accused to absence of certain issues to the rebellion within Election Commission – name it, and you had it.

NON-POLITICAL INTERVIEW – This is a new entry into India's political lexicon. May be for the first time, a top-notch politician gave a “non-political interview” in the midst of a do-or-die electoral battle. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's more than an hour interview with actor Akshay Kumar, a known BJP supporter, where they spoke about everything but politics. The interview was intended to bring out the softer side of Modi but ended up, at least for a section, as a handle to mock the Prime Minister as he was asked questions like how he ate mangoes. If this was asked in a non-political interview, “political” interviews were not far better as one of the journalists asked him about his fashion sense and whether he wrote poetry. Modi too invited ridicule upon himself by boasting about how he ordered Balakot strikes on a cloudy day so that Indian aircraft could dodge Pakistan radars. It didn’t matter science says something else. Rahul Gandhi appeared to have a genuine complaint – you ask me tough questions like where we get money for NYAY (minimum income guarantee scheme) and you ask Modi how he dresses, how he ate mangoes.

PC THAT WASN'T – This election also saw a unique press conference, touted to be the first media interaction by the Prime Minister in five years, where he gave a statement but refused to take questions. He was ridiculed for this with Opposition leaders asking him what he was scared of. All the answering was left to BJP president Amit Shah in the over 50-minute press conference where Modi spoke for about 12 minutes. Modi's press conference, which did not happen in the last five years, has been an anticipated event but when it happened, Modi just played the obedient party man who considers his party chief everything. Like him, most of his supporters too feel that Modi need not be questioned by media, which many still consider as the Fourth Estate of a vibrant democracy.

MEDITATION – One's faith and expression of faith is one's own private affair. But Modi knows how to make his every single move a media spectacle. His overnight meditation in a cave in Kedarnath was no different. Just a day before the last and seventh phase of polling was to be held, he closeted himself in the cave. But not before media was allowed to photograph Modi, clad in a saffron shawl. Photographs and video footage of his “meditation” were flashed on TV and social media but his publicists have an uncanny ability to mess it up. The photos were released even before he “started” meditation, prompting people to wonder whether he was just posing. A video footage showed Modi wearing spectacles while meditating in one frame and it missing in another, again prompting criticism of the PR exercise. Yes, the Election Commission did allow him to meditate but with a condition, don’t violate the Model Code of Conduct!

MODI v/s WHO – This was one question that the BJP raised throughout the campaign. The Opposition said wait for May 23. Theories were abound. Some said Nitin Gadkari or Rajnath Singh, who are dear to the RSS, will step into the Prime Minister’s shoes if BJP fell below 200 but others believe Modi-Shah duo will never allow this to happen and would choose to sit in Opposition. On the other side, there is a long queue of aspirants, who have positioned themselves strategically. Except for Mayawati, none has openly indicated about their dreams. Besides Mayawati, those in contention include Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar and N Chandrababu Naidu. And, don’t forget Rahul Gandhi too. Now, the BJD has propped up Naveen Patnaik’s name too. Interestingly, a former Congress leader who joined CPI(M) later Cherian Philip has even brought the name of A K Antony as a possible consensus candidate.

ASHOK LAVASA – The Election Commissioner rebelled against the flurry of clean chits to the Prime Minister and wanted his dissent to be recorded on the orders clearing Modi of Model Code of Conduct violations. The other two, Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora and Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra, did not agree. Modi was accused of repeatedly invoking military in campaign speeches and using communally sensitive remarks. The EC was even accused of taking more than enough time to clear the complaints. At one point, even the Supreme Court intervened. The rift within the EC came out when Lavasa’s recusal from EC proceedings became public and the CEC issued a statement to counter it. Lavasa’s daughter Avny, a serving IAS officer, also grabbed headlines when she initiated action against BJP leaders accused of bribing media persons in Leh. The credibility of the Election Commission is at its nadir, sadly, this time.

RETURN OF THE DEAD – This is one election where the campaign themes returned to graveyards more than it was needed. The dead were resurrected too frequently. From Mahatma Gandhi to Jawaharlal Nehru to Rajiv Gandhi to Nathuram Godse, all had a chance to be the election issue this time. The irony of the times is that the Mahatma killer Godse had his share of fans with a twisted ideology, who believes that he should be seen in a different light. Rajiv Gandhi got entangled with Modi saying that he died becoming ‘Brashtachari No 1’ or Corrupt No 1. Modi’s supporters reasoned, if Rahul call him ‘chor’ (thief), then the Prime Minister can invoke Rajiv. Incidentally, in Tamil Nadu, this was the first election without M Karunanidhi and his arch-rival Jayalalithaa.

ABSENCE – L K Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, the Hindutva leaders, were a towering presence in Indian electoral politics so far but this time, they are no where to be seen. The new BJP under Modi and Shah has systematically sidelined them to oblivion though they vehemently tries to remain relevant. Shah took over Advani’s Gandhinagar seat while Joshi’s Kanpur was allotted to a lesser known BJP leader. Advani blogged to talk about how BJP respects its opponent while Joshi wrote an open letter to his voters saying his party doesn’t want to contest. Advani’s blog was retweeted by Modi but Shah and several leaders ignored it. Both the veterans now wait for May 23.

SILENT AYODHYA – Early this year, the Ram temple and Ayodhya were very much there in Sangh Parivar discourse. The Supreme Court was hearing a petition but suddenly it went out of the radar. May be, the political climate was cloudy! Just before the elections, the Sangh Parivar subtly shifted deadline beyond 2025 with RSS sending strictures to its affiliates like the VHP not to trouble the BJP on Ram Temple. May be the BJP strategists knew raking it up once again could attract difficult questions – what did you do in five years – from its constituents. Or may be, they were sure they had more potential Hindutva themes to lean on. BJP leaders from Narendra Modi to Amit Shah to Yogi Adityanath did rake up Hindutva themes from time to time in the campaign – by equating Rahul Gandhi's second constituency Wayanad with Pakistan to fielding 'Hindutva' terror accused Pragya Thakur.

HUA TO HUA – On both sides of the aisle, it is like ‘hua toh hua’ (so what). The customary condemnation, suspension and distancing follow and life flows on. Pragya Thakur, Anantkumar Hegde, Nalin Kumar Kateel, Anil Saumitra, Azam Khan, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Sam Pitroda are among a few who got national attention. For Pragya, Hemant Karkare was killed in 26/11 due to her curse and Godse is a patriot. For Saumitra, the Mahatma is Father of Pakistan. Hegde endorsed re-reading of Godse in a positive light! Aiyar put his party once again in trouble by raking up his ‘neech’ remarks. In the midst of campaigning, Rahul Gandhi’s top advisor Pitroda put his boss in trouble days before Punjab went to polls by saying ‘hua toh hua’ on anti-Sikh riots. Rahul condemned it and asked Pitroda to apologise. On Pragya, Modi said he could never forgive her for comments on Godse but Shah, with the Prime Minister on his side, made it clear they do not regret giving her a ticket to fight. Yes, so what!

RAIDS – If campaigning was there on one side, there were Income Tax raids somewhere else. Several Opposition parties cried foul as their leaders were targeted. Their grievance was that the IT officers were not raiding any BJP leaders. Raiding officials returned empty-handed from top DMK leader Kanimozhi’s residence in Tamil Nadu. Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik was seen sitting in his chopper when election officials searched his bag and belongings. But when a Karnataka IAS officer Mohd Mohsin bore the brunt when he attempted to inspect a chopper in which the Prime Minister travelled. He was suspended by the EC but Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) came to his rescue. Seems some officers or the system has developed selective amnesia!

ISHWAR CHANDRA VIDYASAGAR – A bust in a Kolkata college lie shattered. It was not just a bust but embodiment of an idea of reforms that the conservatives resented in Visdyasagar’s lifetime. And, this could be one of the defining images of the 2019 elections. A freedom fighter was brought to national memory once again but he may be turning in his grave as party cadres turn ahistorical. This could reinforce the idea of violence as a mode of a political thought’s growth. How the events in Kolkata would unfold in the future would depend on how the civil society deals with it. The BJP, though puts the blame on Trinamool Congress for the desecration of Vidyasagar’s bust, has send a message that it won’t shy away from violence to grow in the state it considers as a possible alternative catchment area. Bengalis have enough to ponder over.

NAMO TV – Tele-evangelists had their own channels but for the first time in India, a channel was launched for exclusively for a politician, Narendra Modi. The channel was meant to publicise Modi’s campaign tours and his achievements. Once in a while, it showed Bollywood movies, the patriotic ones, too. Nobody actually knows who runs it though in Election Commission, the BJP has said it owns the product. The channel was available on Direct to Home (DTH) networks but Opposition was asking why such an exclusive channel when most of Indian media was supporting Modi. If social media was the in-thing in 2014 elections, may be 2024 may see national leaders having such channels as means of communication.

MUSLIMS – Every election, this is one section whom political watchers look at how they vote. In 2014, it appeared their votes washed away in a tsunami of Modi wave. This time, with the Opposition in better shape, Muslims appear to be single-mindedly voting for the candidate who can defeat Modi. In Uttar Pradesh, Muslims votes overwhelmingly for ‘Maha Gadbandhan’ (Grand Alliance) while in some they chose Congress. In Delhi, AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal himself gave indications that the community voted for Congress. This time, it appears the community did not want the votes to be divided and the Delhi experience appears to indicate that. Muslims did not have much complaints about AAP but they chose Congress in the capital in Lok Sabha elections, while indicating their choice may different in the Assembly elections early next year. Modi himself sent a signal of ‘othering’ when he said Rahul has fled to a constituency (Wayanad) where the majority community (Hindus) are a minority. For Muslims, a Modi ouster is more important than anything.

DALITS – Like Muslims, all parties are looking at how Dalits would vote. They had overwhelmingly voted for BJP in the last elections but this time, Opposition believes the situation has changed after cow vigilantes have attacked them in a series of incidents across the country. There is fear among Dalit communities that a BJP government tinker with reservation policy though Modi had promised them that his party would not do so. A section of Dalits believes that their community members irrespective of their economic status are voting against BJP this time. Another believes that a vast majority of middle class Dalits will vote against the BJP but the poor may still go with BJP. 

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