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Home > 2024 > 2024 Lok Sabha Elections: Our Hope Ourselves | Papri Sri Raman

Mainstream, VOL 62 No 15, April 13, 2024

2024 Lok Sabha Elections: Our Hope Ourselves | Papri Sri Raman

Friday 12 April 2024, by Papri Sri Raman


THE INDIAN NATIONAL CONGRESS has at last come out with its election manifesto, now that all the assembly elections of 2023 are over. It’s a bit too late, though. The general elections in India start on April 19. Hardly two weeks for people to read the Congress manifesto, decide and give a conscious thumbs up for this party.

Within ten minutes of the manifesto going public, Whatsapp posts were flooded with the misinformation that the Congress manifesto promised to bring back the Triple Talaq system. It was a false narrative to wean away women voters from the Congress and it was quick to flood social media. The prime minister’s allegation that it is a Muslim League manifesto has no substance; but the Congress seems to have forgotten to take into account the poisonous nature of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electioneering and the speed of technology at its command. Going to court over what the PM says is hardly useful when the elections are upon us.

To have State elections, just a few months before general elections, is a good way to stop the Opposition from getting adequate preparation time, and this government strategy has served the ruling BJP well.

My younger friends – supporters of various other parties, but all confirmed opposers of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party – are of the opinion that the Congress, not preparing diligently for the saffron onslaught, cut the branch on which it sat in 2014.

There is some merit in their grouse. Post Emergency (1975-77), all parliaments have been with alliances. It began with Janata Party’s Morarji Desai, a former Congressman who did not like Nehru and disliked Indira Gandhi more. Jayaprakash Narayan’s JP alliance contained stalwarts like Kripalani, long-time Congressman Biju Patnaik who had become a dissenter, several who called themselves Socialists, like Raj Narain and Ramanand Mishra, holding hands of strong Sangh elements like L K Advani and A B Vajpayee and Chandra Shekhar. Mahatma Gandhi was killed by Sangh elements and it was for the first time that this faction was politically accepted in an anti-Congress grouping, thus earning legitimacy.

The simple Indian voter, used to a stable government since 1947, was thoroughly confused. It gave the dubious Socialists and former Congresswallah Janata Party alliance 271 seats and 43 per cent votes. More confusing was when Desai was quickly replaced by Chaudhary Charan Singh (1979), claiming to be a farmers’ leader.

Three years of chaos led the voter to quickly bring back Indira Gandhi and the Congress. Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge, in his recent speech in Rajasthan pointed out, this was the same Bharat Mata goddess Durga Indira Gandhi who had defeated Pakistan in 1971, broken it into two, and helped create Bangladesh.

It soon became obvious to political observers, it was a heady patriarchal machination against a person, anger because she was a woman perhaps, and not against the party, that caused the defeat of the Congress in 1977. While Indira Gandhi was killed for her action against antinational activists in the Golden Temple, her son Rajiv Gandhi won the 1984 elections with 404 of the then 514 seats, the pinnacle of success for any party, not just the INC.

The message from the voter was, India does not like assassinations, whatever their merit or demerit, whatsoever the reason. Assam and Punjab had late elections, and Rajiv had time to make friends in these States. The AIADMK in Tamil Nadu was his friend. The BJP of that time just had 2 seats.

Again, it was a former Congressman and Rajiv’s own minister V P Singh who brought charges of corruption against the young PM, pulled the carpet under the Rajiv government, became prime minister (1989-1990, for a year) and could not provide the country a stable government, and handed office to Chandra Shekhar (1910-1991, for 6 months). Following Rajiv’s assassination, the voter brought the Congress back to power, with a reformist government and economic liberation spearheaded by Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh.

The confused voter, in those days, had coined the phrase, ‘Aya Ram, Gaya Ram’. Vajpayee’s attempt to become prime minister was scuttled by his ally, the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu. This party continues to be with the BJP. H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral only gave transient governments. They were no friends of the Congress and handed power to Vajpayee from 1998 to 2004, its ally this time the DMK. The BJP had no qualms letting a shipping channel be dug through the holy Palk Strait and reducing the mythical value of the ‘Rama Sethu’.

The New Century

In 2003, ahead of the 2004 elections, two DMK ministers in the Vajpayee cabinet, T R Baalu and A Raja pulled support and resigned. As a result, the BJP had neither the DMK, nor the AIADMK as allies in 2004. Arrest of M Karunanidhi, DMK chief in 2001 and POTA arrests of Tamil leaders, all played against the BJP.

The Congress had by that time several allies, including the Left parties and allies served them well. At that time, the DMK chief M Karunanidhi had said, ‘the party oppose any decision of the NDA government, which was against its (DMK’s) basics and fundamental principles’. The BJP did not expect its ‘India shining’ slogan to boomerang and the defeat of its great statesman Vajpayee in 2004. The BJP did not fully understand the importance of keeping allies happy at that time.

The 2004 Congress victory – it had just 145 seats but managed an alliance that gave the voter stability for five years – surprised many; the strategy surprised many more. The book, Don’t Forget 2004 is an inside story of the marketing and advertising campaign which dovetailed into the political strategy for the Congress party. Ad girl Jayshree Sundar was instrumental in scripting this victory.

The Right To Information Act and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Acts had made their impact. When the Manmohan Singh government won a second term in 2009 (with 206 seats), the RSS had to rethink its ideology-based strategy. It knew that the liberal RTI and NREGA had to be demolished with something stronger for any rightwing success. Hindutva and Ram temple had to be its trump cards. The days of gentleman Vajpayee had to be bid adieu.

Having had a taste of power, the BJP and its mentor RSS were hungry and the party now had new technology and NRI funding to assist it. Anyway, A Raja and the DMK were now anathema, and the notional 2G scam provided a chance to not only pillory the DMK, but also tar the clean image of the Manmohan Singh government.

The Congress was naïve, if not anything else. It thought, a clean and erudite prime minister could keep it in power. Both, in 2014 (INC 44 seats) and 2019 (INC 52 seats), it had very few allies. In 2014, the Congress was reluctant to admit that allies were important; or that the party had to put its own internal turmoil to rest. Seat-sharing talks are only a part of election strategy. The manifesto is important. On its own, the Congress manifesto should have been a stand-alone document in 2014. There was nothing much in that year’s manifesto. It could not somehow cash in on its own good deeds.

Before the 2019 polls, it spoke of Citizen Amendment Act and demonitisation, the BJP’s fault lines instead of its own strongpoints, even past merits. Very recently, explaining her dissent in the demonetisation case, Supreme Court judge Justice B V Nagarathnam pointed out, ‘Ninety-eight per cent of the currency came back to the RBI, so where were we heading towards black money eradication (the aim of demonetisation)? I thought it was a good way of converting black money into white money. What happened about income tax proceedings thereafter, we don’t know. So, therefore, the common man’s predicament really stirred me and hence, I had to dissent’.

The 2019 polls showed us that the voter can be seduced. Made not to think. Despite the demonitisation, the BJP won 303 seats with 55 per cent vote share. Analysts like Prashant Kumar think in 2024, it will get at least 300 seats in the house of 543. The BJP says, it will win 370 seats. Will It?

In a Rediff interview, Parkala Prabhakar says, Modi’s charisma is fading as the electorate is bored with the PM’s theatrics. ‘There is a pervasive sense that huge monies have been taken by the government, favours were granted and agencies were used to extort money. A lot of people understand this much’, he says of the electoral bond scam, when asked if the ordinary and average voter understands this scam.’ He adds, this is a worse period than the Emergency of 1975-76, especially with the government using the Enforcement Directorate and IT raids to finish off the opposition. Indira Gandhi lifted the Emergency and declared elections, which she lost.

Prabhakar is of the opinion, Modi’s popularity is waning. Is it really? Can Modi be considered a sacrificial pawn to garner sympathy vote for the right-wing? Modi has never been named a prime ministerial candid. Is he as dispensable as Vajpayee and Advani were? After Advani, there was Modi. So far, Modi has been the BJP’s winning ticket. Why is no one asking who after Modi? Mr Shah? Mr Jaishankar?

There was no Leader of Opposition in the 16th Lok Sabha. In the 17th parliament, 233 MPs had criminal records; out of its 303 MPs, the BJP had 116 MPs with criminal records. It was a parliament of the super-rich, as many as 475 MPs (ADR data) had assets of more than one crore rupees each. No one reminded the Congress party of the Tagore song:

Jodi tor dak shoone keu na ashe
Tobe ekla cholo re

Ekla cholo ekla cholo

Ekla cholo re…
Jodi keu kotha na koi,

Ore o abhaga,

Tobe ekla cholo,
ekla cholo

Ekla cholo re.

If no one responds to your call, walk alone, walk yourself. To win popularity, the party needs to look self-reliant, not as dithering as it did in the last decade. It needs to take stands on issues relevant for a modern India on its own. Perhaps it needs a Krishna to counter Ram.

A poster from near the Jagganath temple in Odisha says ‘Apna Haath Jagannath’. Jagannath is a popular avatar of Krishna, worshipped throughout eastern Indian States. The phrase also means self-reliant in several regional languages that betters the ‘made in India’ narrative.

The Manifesto

The 2024 Congress manifesto has more substance. It says, ‘Haath Badlega Haalaat’.

There is a Green agenda, a climate change promise and a call to renew water bodies (providing jobs in rural India, what the MNREGA was doing before 2014). India has no Green Party, the Congress could have adopted that role, since it was Indira Gandhi who brought in India’s first conservation act in the 1970s-’80s .

It talks of the plight of India’s 54.4 crore unemployed people. It notes, ‘Out of a whopping 30,000 new job seekers every day, only 500 can realistically expect to get a job. Not all of them can weather two more years of the same inattentiveness to job creation as out of the 12 million new job seekers every year, only 1.2 million have a tertiary education’. It promises skill development apprenticeships. It notes the lack of data, including lack of data from 2021 Census and says, ‘The Modi government has simply given up on releasing employment figures because it truly believes that it can pretend we don’t have a problem as long as they do not measure it.’

It also delves deeply into the country’s farm policy, demanding repeal of BJP government farm laws. What the manifesto misses is the need for increased spending on education and increase in healthcare allocations and a promise to look at all tax laws, which were made during the Singh era and handed over to the BJP on a platter to misuse, as are the national security laws. The Congress still lacks the courage to stand up and say, our instruments and structures have been appropriated and misused.

The manifesto asks a few questions: Is it not true that 35.5% of children under the age of five are stunted? Is it not a fact that 19.3% of children in India are wasted? Is it incorrect that 57% of our women, aged between 15 and 49 years, are anemic? Talking of food security, it asks, is it untrue that in Modi Govt’s Budget 2023-24, the Food Subsidy saw an astounding decrease of 31.28%? Is it not a fact that 74% of Indians were not able to afford a healthy diet due to backbreaking, food-snatching, and price rise imposed by the BJP during its decade-long rule?

It points out that even the Global Hunger Index, which is scrutinised by experts, is based on food balance sheets reported by (India) and is even used for UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and that the world talks of India’s food insecurity but the Modi government does not accept it. It says that it was the Congress-UPA that brought in the Food Security Act, 2013 under prime minister Manmohan Singh and Smt Sonia Gandhi. The BJP was opposed to it.

On women, it promises 50% job reservation for women and 33% reservation of seats for women in Parliament.

These promises are those that should have been made in the winter of 2023; not demonitisation but Covid care and the funds in the kitties of the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund are what any opposition to the BJP should have talked of loudly. The PMNRF has some interesting insights. In 2012-13, it had only about Rs 200 crore donation and spent about Rs 150 crore in public assistance. In 2014 (the later half of the year it became, Rs 500 cr and above and spent close to Rs 300 cr. In 2021, the first Covid year, it received more than Rs 700 crore and spent less than Rs 200 crore. There is no data for the two years after 2021, nothing on how much was spent on the second Covid year (see image).

The PM CARES Fund received a total of Rs 12,691.82 crore – as voluntary contributions (Rs 12,156.39 crore) and foreign contributions (Rs 535.43 crore) – during three years from 2019-22. There is no data on what has been received in the last two years.

Ever wonder where have all the social sector cuts and welfare funds of ten years gone?

The Congress manifesto does not talk about the Electoral Bond scam, it is unable to make an issue of this corruption, unlike how the BJP had a field day with the 2G scam. The question now is, will the INC win at least a hundred seats? For the second time in parliament, there was no Leader of the Opposition and the credibility of India’s democracy is now being questioned.

What the States Foretell

The seven phase elections end on June 1. First to go to the husting will be smaller States with one or two seats each. Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Nagaland and Sikkim have a total 11 MPs. Arunachal has 2 BJP seats with the BJP as the ruling party. Manipur has 1 BJP MP and 1 Naga Peoples’ Front MP with BJP as the ruling party. Meghalaya has 1 INC MP and 1 with the National People’s Party (NPP), which is the ruling party. Mizoram has 1 MP from the Mizo National Front, which lost the 2023 assembly polls to the Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM). Tripura has 2 BJP MPs and a BJP-IPFT government. Nagaland has 1 MP seat with the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, that rules. Sikkim has 1 MP seat with Sikkim Krantikari Morcha, which is the ruling party. So six MP seats are not with BJP.
Goa has 2 MP seats, Chandigarh one. Lakshadweep, Andaman Nicobar, Daman Diu and Pondicherry, all have one MP seat each. At least three of these seven seat are not the BJP’s.

Kerala (20 MP seats), Tamil Nadu (38), Karnataka (28), Andhra Pradesh (25) and Telengana (17) are not BJP ruled States. Nor are Bihar (40), Odisha (21), Delhi (7), Punjab (13) and Bengal (42). Rather than the UN, Mr Jaishankar perhaps needed to tell the Indian voter that the elections will be free and fair. The Congress now has to depend on its own skills, its own leaders and their convincing ability to get some of this non-BJP parties to hold its hand so that the democratic process is visible in the next parliament. What the Indian voter apprehends most is ‘authoritarianism’.

Prabhakar warns, if the BJP forms government in 2024, there may not be any elections any more and Constitutional amendment is on the cards. A high-level committee headed by former President Ram Nath Kovind has recommended simultaneous elections in India in its over 18,000-page report that it submitted to President Droupadi Murmu on 14 March 2024. The panel is said to have recommended amending the Constitution, so elections for the Lok Sabha, all State assemblies and local bodies can be held by the middle of 2029. This will considerably reduce the chances of a AAP government in the national capital Delhi, or a Congress government in a ify State like Karnataka or Telengana and will definitely help saffron entry in the South.

If what Parkala Prabhakar fears – that there may not be any election in five years hence – comes true? the Indian National Congress definitely needs to become the peg to which opposition aspiration is tethered. The Congress has only itself to help it. We, as voters, have only our own hands to press the button on the EVM.

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