The recently-concluded Lok Sabha elections will perhaps go down in annals of the country’s electioneering history as truly epoch-making in ways more than one
Even as the dust kicked up by the recently-concluded Lok Sabha election settles down, one can’t help but ruminate at the paradigm shift the electioneering has witnessed in this country. Be it in terms of the arduously-long 48-day polling schedule, issues, campaigning tools, strategy, unprecedented voter turnout and, finally, the verdict (a resounding one at that for an incumbent after the 1971 election), the 2019 general elections will perhaps go down in annals of the country’s electioneering history as truly epoch-making in ways more than one.
Never before in the country’s history had a general election been conducted in seven phases, spanning from April 11 up to May 19, before results were finally announced on May 23. And no doubt, it was one of the most bitterly-fought elections too that the country had witnessed in recent memory.
There was no-holds barred campaigning as the rancorous opposition hurled choicest of abuses (often personal) on the ruling dispensation, which was paid back in no unkind terms by the latter. Whether it was the “chowkidar chor hai” jibe against the incumbent Prime Minister or the ruling dispensation’s scathing attacks on Nehru-Gandhi family or an opposition candidate’s utterly sexist comment against his woman rival candidate in UP or a former cricketer’s open appeal to Muslims to dislodge the incumbent, electioneering marked a new low in the country as candidates ratcheted up spiteful attacks.
So much so that the Election Commission of India (ECI) had to intervene on more than one occasion – put gag orders on UP chief minister Adityanath Yogi, senior Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan, cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu, BJP’s fiery candidate Sadhvi Pragya, etc, for violation of model code of conduct. But that didn’t help cool matters as candidates continued to spew venom at each other.
Interestingly, issues that normally accompany any election were largely absent this time. For instance, corruption, price rise, development, etc, never once figured during the electioneering, the focus primarily being on nationalism and, of course, on Narendra Modi. It was perhaps for the first time in any election that the Opposition was left searching for issues to pin down the incumbent as those like corruption and price rise were largely contained.
And the ruling dispensation so carefully calibrated the entire political discourse that it largely centred on brand Modi, while setting the agenda of nationalism. Preceded by the Balakot air strike, the BJP very deftly dictated the entire discourse on nationalism that put it on a pole position. And the opposition couldn’t extricate itself out to spin a counter-narrative, leave alone coming out with an altogether different political discourse, which contributed in no small measure in deciding the final poll outcome.
The incumbent’s success in pushing the narrative can be gauged by the fact that even people living in areas ravaged by decades of separatist movement like the Northeast too cautiously embraced nationalism – BJP and its allies won 19 of the region’s 25 seats, which is a historic high for a party that till a few years back was viewed as primarily a Hindi heartland party.
And with macro issues largely dominating the electioneering, even the tools of campaigning witnessed a tectonic shift. Backed by a huge army of tech-savvy social media supporters, the political parties engaged with political foes and friends alike on digital platform like never before. Besides hitting the dusty trail, the parties and their candidates took to social media in a big way, and social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, etc, witnessed unprecedented use.
On the other hand, with so much at stake, it was only natural that political parties were leaving no stone unturned to keep the pot boiling as the mega electoral battle went down to the wire. And unfortunately, electronic voting machines (EVM) became a favourite punching bag for the opposition parties as they kept on questioning their credibility.
So, even as the poll process was on, the Supreme Court kept on hearing petitions after petitions against EVM. In the end, however, EVM triumphed (along with the people’s mandate) as not a single complaint was filed with ECI by any opposition party post announcement of results. Further, even in the 20,625 Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail or VVPAT units that were tallied with EVMs, not a single mismatch was found, thereby disproving the theory that EVMs could be hacked or tampered with. Over 1.48 million EVM and 1.12 million VVPAT units were used across 10,35,918 polling stations in the country.
The 2019 general elections were also noteworthy in terms of voter turnout. Breaking all previous records, as many as 61.3 crore voters exercised their franchise – the highest till date in any election conducted anywhere in the world.
And in the end, the outcome too was no less an eye-opener. While the Modi juggernaut that set off in 2014 was expected to romp home comfortably this time as well, however, what caught the imagination of most poll pundits is the kind of resounding victory the electorate handed over to the incumbent.
While giving a clear mandate to the BJP-led NDA for the second time on the trot, the electorate also ensured that all caste, ethnic and religion-based poll equations are proved wrong. The voters squarely rejected the combinations of caste and religion as they embraced issues of national interest and development that the BJP so aggressively pitched for.
No wonder, parties that were primarily drawing strength from caste and religion-based politics thus far were all blown to smithereens. So, while parties like Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party that spearheaded “social justice” politics somehow just about managed to hold on (winning 15 seats) in UP, they still could not stop the Modi juggernaut as the BJP walked away with 62 of the State’s 80 seats (BJP’s ally Apna Dal won 2 and Congress won 1). The fate of Rashtriya Janata Dal in neighbouring Bihar, which was at the forefront of the grand alliance against BJP-JD (U) ruling coalition, was even worse as it was completely routed.
Another significant takeaway of the election has been the near-complete annihilation of prominent regional forces, that put paid to their grandiose plan of cobbling up a “third front”. Except in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Telengana, elsewhere they were completely routed. While Trinamool Congress just about managed to edge past the BJP in numbers game in West Bengal, Asom Gana Parishad failed to open an account in Assam. Even within Assam, parties like Autonomous State Demand Committee spearheading autonomous state demand movement for the past few decades comprising the twin hill districts of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao failed to win the lone Autonomous District Parliamentary seat.
With the voters having given their mandate loud and clear against caste, language and religion-based politics that bedevilled the country’s electoral process, and clearly in favour of issues of development and nationalism, it now remains to be seen how the new dispensation seizes the opportunity to turn a new leaf in the country’s political destiny, for a New India.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Guwahati)