On the outskirts of India’s capital, Sarla, a housewife who had lined up to vote in the first phase of the general elections, had a long list of grievances against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, but she still vouched for its second term.
“He got Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, captured by Pakistan in February, back to India in just two days,” she replied, referring to a plane downed amid a rise in tensions over Kashmir.
But when she was asked whether the return of Abhinandan had improved her life or why Modi was still unable to secure the release of another Indian prisoner, Kulbhushan Jadhav, from Pakistani custody, she had no answers but exuded confidence in Modi’s strong image.
In the western province of Rajasthan, contractors and laborers said their workdays have been squeezed to a mere 10 days a month.
“Modi’s decision to demonetize high-value currency notes two years ago and the new tax structure have slowed down the economy,” said Rattan Lal, a builder in the town of Makrana, which is famous for its marble mines.
He was angry with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but said this time his vote is for the soldier on the border. Like him, voters all over complain about the declining number of jobs, farms in distress and stagnant growth but find resonance with the ruling party’s nationalistic pitch.
With the fifth phase of polls held on Monday, Indian voters have so far decided the fate of candidates for 425 parliamentary seats of the seven-phase election. That means the composition of nearly 80% of India’s parliament stands sealed. The remaining 118 seats are going to the polls in the next two phases and the process will end on May 19.
In 2014, Modi mesmerized voters with a promise of delivering inclusive growth, corruption-free governance, jobs for young people and the prospect of doubling farmers’ incomes. Political analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta, vice chancellor of Ashoka University in northern India, believes that Modi is deliberately not seeking re-election on the specificities of his record of governance.
“Doing so risks arousing an anti-incumbency sentiment that will be difficult to counter,” he said.
Economic issues in cold storage
According to the Finance Ministry, in March 2014, two months prior to Modi taking over, the country’s total debt was 53.11 trillion rupees ($758 billion). As of 2019, it has risen to 83.40 trillion rupees ($1.91 trillion), an increase of 57%.
According to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), a top Delhi-based social science research institute, around 76% of farmers want to give up farming. Media outlet Business Line recently reported that in the years 2014-2018, 14,034 farmers — or eight farmers a day — ended their lives due to crop failures and their inability to pay loans. Out of them, 4,500 committed suicide in Maharashtra – India’s richest and most highly industrialized province.
Aware that his initiatives to address the economy would only raise questions, Modi decided to contest the 2019 polls on the ultra-national agenda. The Pulwama terrorist attack in Jammu and Kashmir and the airstrikes on Balakot deep inside Pakistan provided the narrative.
Ruling party president Amit Shah said the fight for 2019 is not about development.
“Development is bound to happen. But the bigger issue is about national security. No one except Narendra Modi can protect the country,” he said.
During his public meetings, Modi chooses national security and punishing Pakistan-sponsored terrorism as the binding themes of his reelection campaign.
“When you earn your first salary, usually you don’t keep it for yourself. You want to dedicate it to your mother or sister. Similarly, you can dedicate your vote for the Balakot airstrike, for the Pulwama attack victims. Will you dedicate your vote to the brave men who conducted the Balakot strikes, to the security personnel who lost their lives in the Pulwama attack?” Modi said in the southwestern town of Aurangabad, appealing to an estimated 15 million first-time voters.
He is targeting the rival Congress Party and regional parties as anti-Hindu, pro-Pakistan and pro-Muslim.
Azhar’s designation big electoral boost
China’s withdrawal of its veto to allow the UN Security Council (UNSC) to designate Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar a global terrorist has exalted the ruling party and has given a boost to its electoral chances in the next three phases.
Modi had sent Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale to China last week to discuss its stance on Azhar. China had blocked sanctions against Azhar three times in the past. The U.S., France and the U.K. had given it time up to April 23 to withdraw its ‘technical hold’ on the Azhar issue in the UNSC sanctions committee.
The Easter Sunday bombings in neighboring Sri Lanka have also given a handle to the BJP’s pitch against terrorism and potential threats against India. The country’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) is already looking into links between the Sri Lanka bombers and suspects in India.
Cocktail of ultra-nationalism and communal agenda
Besides ultra-nationalism, fielding Pragya Singh Thakur from the prestigious central Indian city of Bhopal is also seen as an act to boldly claim a Hindu communal agenda. A former activist of the BJP’s student wing, she is alleged to have provided assistance to various terrorist acts to target Muslims. Her motorcycle was used in the 2008 Malegaon bombings. She was also charged in the murder of an activist, Sunil Joshi, who according to the NIA was involved in the 2007 Samjhauta Express bombings that killed scores of Pakistanis who were returning to their country. The train operates between New Delhi and the Pakistani city of Lahore.
Even as the ruling party denies the tag of “Hindu terror”, two of its former activists — Devendra Gupta and Bhavesh Patel — were convicted in the 2007 Ajmer Dargah bombing and are serving life sentences.
According to noted commentator and journalist Bharat Bhushan, although the BJP and its patron organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) may not have backed or conspired to launch terrorist strikes against Muslims, their ideological interface with those accused of these terrorist acts remains undefined and perhaps permeable.
Earlier, a hate-spewing saffron-clad Yogi Adityanath was appointed chief minister of Uttar Pradesh — one of the most populous and politically significant provinces of India. Such acts are aimed at creating Hindu-Muslim polarization with the hope that Hindus will consolidate in favor of the BJP.
Besides Pakistan and communal polarization, the ruling party is also promising to rescind Article 370 of the Indian constitution that provides a special status to the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir.
“Once we achieve a majority in both houses of parliament, we will remove Article 370 from the constitution,” Shah said amid cheers from the crowd at a public rally.
Kashmiri politicians believe that the abrogation of this provision will allow Hindus to settle in the region in large numbers, thus overturning its Muslim majority status.
– Minds rather than hearts
The main opposition Congress Party had tried to create a narrative of the party’s renewal by roping in Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the charismatic sister of its president, Rahul Gandhi, to debut in politics. However, that initiative seems to be frittering away.
There is no evidence of a Priyanka wave in Uttar Pradesh. She had been projected to be a joint candidate against Modi in his electoral constituency — Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. Opposition leaders had argued that her charismatic aura would have given Modi a tough fight. But her party did not approve her candidature, thus giving Modi almost a walkover.
The regional secular alliance of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has, however, given the BJP a tough time in the province. They had jointly fielded a former soldier, Tej Bahadur Yadav, against Modi. But his nomination was rejected by the election commission. In 2017, he was dismissed from service after complaining on social media about the quality of food being provided to soldiers serving at the borders. Election authorities said he could not produce documents related to his dismissal from service in the stipulated time.
The Congress Party’s inability to articulate a cohesive response to challenges posed by Modi is the biggest stumbling block. In fact, long before Pulwama, Congress had been trying to make this election about the alleged corruption in the Rafale fighter jet deal. The jets are being procured from France. Despite a long campaign, it does not seem to have cut much ice with the people. In fact, post-Pulwama, the urgent need for modernizing India’s aging air fleet has been underscored even more.
While the opposition has taken exception to making foreign policy an axis to lure voters, Harsh V. Pant, director of the Strategic Studies Program at Delhi-based think-tank the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), believes that these issues are in sync with the aspirations of the majority.
“And that is what seems to have given the BJP an edge in these elections,” he said.
But senior Congress leader and former minister Jaipal Reddy said the silent majority of voters in India’s vast rural landscape will vote on development issues rather than get swayed by the publicity blitzkrieg of the ruling party. He recalled the 2004 parliamentary elections when the BJP government led by then powerful Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost despite a similar high-voltage campaign.
“The media and all analysts then had predicted a landslide for the BJP. But voters had different plans. Let us hope they have similar plans in 2019 also, by using their minds rather than their hearts when they vote,” he told Anadolu Agency.