Elections 2019: Five Takeaways As Modi-Rahul Square Off At ‘Interval’BloombergQuintOpinion
Indian audiences love the unique concept of an ‘interval’ in Bollywood films. As they take a popcorn/cola break, people trade quick reviews and guess “ab interval kay baad kya hoga” (how will the story unfold after the break?). So often we hear people saying “arre, interval tak mazedaar hai, par uske bad picture bundle hai” (the film is good fun until the interval, but boring after that) while exiting the cinema hall.
We have now hit the ‘interval’ in the 12-week-long electoral theatre of 2019. So, it’s time to exchange gossip, hedge bets, and tee-up for the ‘back 9’ (please indulge me as I mix Bollywood and golf metaphors). Here, then, are my five takeaways at half- time.
One: Modi, Strong, Muscular, Hindutva Icon And Anti-Intellectual
Prime Minister Modi has transformed from the vikas purush (development man) of 2014 to the strongman of 2019. His campaign pitch is all about bashing Pakistan and exterminating terrorists. He is taking liberties with the truth, calling opponents “weak and treacherous, even traitors”. He does not bother to hide his disdain for intellectuals. He has bullied the media into a choreographed submission.
Once you do all the additions and subtractions, I reckon his vote share could stay the same, or perhaps increase by a couple of percentage points, to about 33 percent, in these polls.
Two: Rahul Gandhi, Coming Of Political Age
Once seen as diffident and aloof, Rahul Gandhi is now relishing the thrust and parry of realpolitik. He is the stark opposite of Modi, a leader who seems to respect diversity, even dissent. While Modi enjoys micro-managing and spewing statistics, Rahul seems to focus on the big picture, evident from the manifesto that his team has authored.
Also, while Rahul’s spoken Hindi has improved considerably, he is restricted in using colloquial, rabble-rousing, earthy prose. He clearly comes into his own during informal interactions in English – witness his charming exchange with women students at Stella Maris College in Chennai. This also explains his higher approval rating in the South, although he’s gradually winning points across the country.
While Rahul is yet to play par (golf again!) against Modi, he is becoming a serious contender.
Three: BJP Wrapped Around A Cult Personality
Once upon a time, the BJP used to be a party driven by a broad-based/collective leadership and wedded to RSS’s ideology. Today, it’s astonishingly Modi-centric, dominated totally by his personality cult. Nobody dares to challenge Modi, even indirectly. Not one murmur was heard when the founders of the party—from Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi to Sumitra Mahajan—were visibly snubbed. The party has also lost its sense of Vajpayee-esque humour – these days, it’s always angry, morose, mocking, smirking.
The party’s antidote to that is a deeper regress into inflammatory Hindutva, exemplified so sharply by the nomination of Pragya Thakur in Bhopal and an unrestrained diatribe from Adityanath (sorry, I shall not fall for the ruse of calling them Sadhvi and Yogi, both of which are revered honorifics in my tolerant Hindu religion). These two, along with a dozen other radical specimens, could become political Frankenstein(s).
Also read: The Secret to Modi’s Success
Four: Congress Reclaiming The 25/25/100 Political Watermark
The Congress is showing clear signs of revival after its humiliating defeat in 2014 when its vote share had plummeted to a perilous 19 percent. If just a few more percentage points had gotten shaved off from this low level, Modi would have realised his dream of a Congress-mukt (free) Bharat. But with a smart pullback in half a dozen states and several by-elections, the party has shown its will to fight. It’s also winning back its core support base of secular Hindus and disenfranchised minorities, including Dalits.
Five: The Regional Juggernaut
Regional parties are giving stiff resistance to Modi in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal and Odisha. They are set to win large majorities here, effectively confining Modi’s pickings to states in which he is up against the Congress. The other peculiar reality is how a regional party’s footprint abruptly stops at its own borders – for example, Telugu Desam is non-existent in Telengana, just as TRS is confined to its bailiwick.
While most of these regional titans are potential Congress allies in a coalition government that could be formed in May, they are natural foes of both the BJP and Congress in later battles, as the national parties try to expand their footprint across the country. But we shall leave that political treatise for another year, another poll.
Toh ab, kya hoga interval kay baad (how will the story unfold after the interval)? Well, as the iconic star once said, picture abhi baaki hai merey dost (quite a bit of the film is yet to be screened, my friend) - so, stay glued!
Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.