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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 21 New Delhi May 11, 2019

Lok Sabha Elections 2019: Battleground of ‘Modi-ism’ versus ‘Mamata-ism’

Tuesday 14 May 2019

by Pratip Chattopadhyay

Elections to form the 17th Lok Sabha of the Indian Parliament have been under way with the declaration of the seven phases of election across the country by the Election Commission of India spanning from April 11 to May 19 with the election results to be declared on May 23, 2019. Devoid of any national issue that could attract the society like unemployment, poverty eradication, basic health service and literacy, this election uniquely focuses on two political personalities (Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee) that seem to be the face of the government and of the Opposition respectively. This paper argues that politics and mannerisms centred on these two polar personalities will define the contour and context of the ongoing national election.

The Context of 2019 Election: ‘External’ over ‘Domestic’ Issues

Regular elections after every five years have been the hallmark of the largest functioning democracy of the world, India. The context for any national election in India is set in motion by the policies and programmes, as well as approaches and responsibility of the govern-ment towards domestic and foreign issues affecting Indian society at large. Therefore the entire period from one election to another is seen from a performative perspective of the government at the Centre. Moreover the eternal vigilance of 24x7 media has made it hard for the government to tackle both reality and surreality while addressing the public.

In this context the last five years from 2014 to 2019 have been a tale of realising a somewhat vague ‘achhe din’ (good days) for the countrymen and the illusory attempt of confiscation and bringing back ‘black money’ of the richer sections of the Indian society present in foreign banks for the Indian economy. This period also witnessed two government nomenclatures two ‘surgical strikes’ one each in foreign and domestic policy spheres. While the reactive target for the external surgical strikes was Pakistan, the target for sudden demonetisation was confiscation of perceived black money in the various parts/sections in the domestic economy and the aim of the GST (General Service Tax) was to have a universal sale rate across the country on any merchandise, which was not achieved to the extent expected and inflation was not tackled. While the timing of the external surgical strikes were 2016 and 2019, the timing of the domestic surgical strike was 2016. The pent-up discontent over the sudden economic reform policies in the domestic political sphere was subdued by the euphoria of the successful surgical strike just before the election. Therefore the Opposition is raising the issue as to whether the context for the second external surgical strike (death of forty military personnel) was manufactured through ‘controlled negligence of domestic intelligence’. The other issue that attracted nationwide domestic political attention in the latter part of 2018 was the defence deal with France centering on the Rafale fighter aircraft. These two external issues—Rafale and Surgical Strike II—seem to be hovering above the electoral milieu in India 2019. Even the Central Government of the day, the BJP-led NDA II Government, is not highlighting its much acclaimed social policies like ‘swacch bharat’ (clean India) and ‘beti bachao beti padao’ (save girl child and educate girl child) to electorally win over the masses seemingly aggrieved by its economic policies. Instead they are more concerned about responding to the exactness and clinicality of the surgical attacks on Pakistan and their better and profitable deal on fighter aircraft from France in comparison to the UPA-II Government.

Both the government and the Opposition in the Indian domestic politics are highlighting ‘national external’ issues more than ‘national domestic’ issues to set the tone of the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Last time such a scenario emerged was in the 2009 election on Indo-US Nuclear Deal but that ‘external’ issue was outmanoeuvred by the ‘domestic’ issue about the role of the Left political parties in withdrawing support from the then UPA-I Government. So for the first time in the history of independent India, the electoral issue for the 17th Lok Sabha is ‘external’ (foreign policy) and ‘local’ (federal issues) but not ‘domestic’ (social, economic and cultural policy). It is all the more interesting because in the last five years there have been episodes of cultural encroachment, remaking of the history of India and institutional interference from the executive on the judiciary that have provoked sharp reaction from among the Opposition political parties and in civil society. It is only with the announcement of ‘Nay’ (Nuntama Aay Yojana) scheme campaign of the Indian National Congress in the last week of March 2019 that the demonetisation issue became an electoral issue. However in the making of the election milieu of 2019, every issue seems to be relegated to the background with the ‘external’ issue of ‘masculine attack’ emerging as the talk of the town and debate all around.

‘Modi-ised’ NDA II Government (2014-19)

Looking back at the making of 2014 electoral milieu one remembers how a categorised corporate-backed ‘Modi-wave’ rippled through the electoral campaigns, electoral slogans and social media posts resulting in a massive win for the BJP in 2014 so as to enable it to become the first ever political party after the Indian National Congress to emerge as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha and that too after nearly three decades.

Immediately after this historic win, the party leadership of the BJP sidelined the senior party members like Lal Krishna Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi to the cocoon of ‘margdarshak’ (philosopher-guide). Naturally they were not given party tickets to contest the 2019 election as well. Therefore the new leadership duo of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have continued to work with, work for and work by the Modi effect that was injected into 40 per cent of the Indian electorate in 2014. In government, Modi became the face and brain behind all the policies, be it foreign, economic and cultural. The basic framework of Modi’s policy was anti-Nehruvian, to dismantle the continuation of Nehru’s approach in the policy domain. So in foreign policy the change was from ‘panchsheel’ to ‘panchamrit’, in domestic policy the change was from Planning Commission to Niti Ayog, culturally the change was from celebrating Gandhi and Nehru to celebrating Vallabbhai Patel and Deen Dayal Upadhyay, in economic policy the change was from focus on strengthening domestic investors to ‘Make in India’—a sustained and concerted call to the foreign investors. Even the Ministers of respective Ministries were overshadowed by the thoughts and mannerisms of Prime Minister Modi creating a certain Right-wing masculinity exemplified in the PM’s illusory ’56 inch’ chest. Technically Modi-mania was injected through programmes like ‘Mann ke Baat’ in radio, slogans like Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi and the process of the BJP securing party membership by giving missed calls to a certain mobile number.

The one positive fall-out of the Modi-led government was the awareness spread across society about the necessity of clean environment and separate toilet for each household through the ‘swachh Bharat’ campaign. However in all other aspects from foreign to economic, Modi-mania seem to be have faltered as the BJP lost the Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in December 2018 where the existing Chief Ministers—Vasundhara Raje Scindia, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh—were not discredited to the extent the faltering of Modi-mania become responsible for the loss even among the rank and file of BJP workers. Moreover the breakdown of the PDP-BJP alliance crafted between Modi and Mehbooba Mufti in Kashmir and of TDP-BJP in Andhra Pradesh only added to the disenchantment of Modi within BJP leaders and workers.

So one can say a ‘Modi-system’ has been installed in the BJP politics where both for the success and failure of the Centre and federal units where the BJP enjoys power, Modi is made responsible. Modi came to power through a corporate-backed mediatised campaign wave. Modi’s tenure also witnessed a technically driven political communication through the mann ki baat programme. Even the Modi-led Central Government has gone to elections with the help of social media-based campaign techniques. Thus it is a Modi-ised BJP-led NDA-II Government.

The Re-making of Opposition Politics (2014-19)

The period from 2014-19 witnessed a new form of Opposition politics in Indian democracy. After the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 the major national parties that remained in Opposition like the Indian National Congress and the Left political parties saw their ‘seats’ and ‘reach’ coming down to an all-time low. With this development, two basic structural ideologies of Indian politics, ‘secularism’ and ‘socialism’, also ebbed. The result was the rise of the Right-wing politics of majoritarianism and intolerance. The newness in the politics of Opposition during 2009-14 was the rise of social movement-based political parties like the Aam Admi Party and increasing national presence of the BJP and dwindling presence of the Left political parties. The 2019 national election re-introduced a moment of one-party majority system in Indian politics after early 1980s. The consequent leadership crisis of the Indian National Congress at the central level has shifted the stage of Opposition politics to the federal units during this period and hence State-based political parties to like the Trinamul Congress, Biju Janata Dal, Telugu Desam Party, Asom Gana Parishad, AAP became the main oppositional force in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 elections. Slowly the Indian National Congress started strategically highlighting the fault-lines of the incumbent government and regained some of its lost Oppositional space under the new leadership of the Rahul Gandhi-Priyanka Gandhi combine.

Nevertheless the mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) of State-based political parties combine became the main opposition to the ruling BJP. The new Opposition political space in Indian democracy witnesses a ‘political conglomerate’ equating itself to a national level competitor like the BJP. The slide of the Indian National Congress to the second spot in national level politics of the Opposition marks the re-making of the organisation. The other notable feature of this discernable change is the spread of the Opposition into distinct parts before the 2019 elections—mahagatbandhan, SP-BSP alliance, Indian National Congress and the Left Front—with different takes on Opposition politics having the similar aim of dismantling the BJP’s fascist intolerant politics of majoritarianism. This disarrayed chaotic Opposi-tional arrangement has also created a moment of opportunity for the BJP to seize power once again even with lesser percentage of the aggregate polled votes. However, it is West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who has been able to make her the face of this disarrayed chaotic Opposition politics in India. While the Rahul-Priyanka Gandhi combine is the primary target of the BJP campaign, deep down the mahagathbandhan is also branded as mahamilayat (grand deception) in the BJP campaign spearheaded by Modi.

2019 Lok Sabha Election: Non-ideological Moment of Indian Politics

The complexity of the Indian democratic politics in the last couple of decades following the Mandal-Mandir debate and deepening of democracy was resulted in was flourishing of various ‘ism’s and ideologies like socialism, Marxism, cosmopo-litanism, multiculturalism, liberalism, secularism, nationalism, neo-lberalism and good governance. The waning of the ideological moment was most evident on the eve of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections when the Left political parties joined a rainbow coalition with casteiest political parties like SP and BSP in their desperation to defeat the Indian National Congress-led UPA coalition and also stop the BJP from forming the government. However the seed of such a political opportunism was sown during 1989 when the Left political parties and BJP joined hands to stop the Indian National Congress from coming to power.

The Indian political milieu in the 21st century has become all the more individualistic and leader-centric that certain mannerisms and approaches of the leader themselves have turned into some form of an ideology of their respective political parties. Examples of such a case includes ‘Chandrababu-ism’ of the TDP indicating the autonomous policy-making approach for the federal unit particularly in the administration sphere, ‘Kejriwal-ism’ of the AAP meaning an attempt of reform from within the system, ‘Naivin-ism’ of the BJD meaning an assorted effort for development on the PPP model, ‘Chandrasekhar-ism’ of the TRS referring to use of sentiment to retain power, ‘Mamata-ism’ of the TMC denoting emotional populist politics and ‘Modi-ism’ signifying a masculine approach.

Important to notice is the fact that these leaders are not at all giving any space to their second tier leaders who come close to their ‘mannerisms’ and approach. For example, Yogendra Yadav getting expelled from the AAP, Mukul Roy from the TMC, Jay Panda from the BJD and senior party patriarchs being sidelined in the margdarshak genre by Modi. Generally each ideology is antithetical to its opponents or those ideologies which come close to its own. Each ideology represented through some ‘ism’s wants to retain its distinctiveness. Similarly the manner and method in which top leaders of important political parties in India are sidelining their own party leaders whenever the ‘face’ of the latter seems to threaten the ‘face’ of the top leader is akin to the manner of keeping the distinctiveness of a particular ideology. Thus the mannerism of a particular leader represents the personified ideology of a particular political force in contemporary Indian politics. Age-old political parties like the Left Front parties, INC, BJP cling on to certain philosophically tested ideology till now in India but the new genre of State-based political parties have demonstrated the popularity of a personified ideology.

The uniqueness of the BJP politics is the simultaneous presence of the philosophically rooted ideology of nationalism and Hindutva and that of Modi-ism allowing the party to switch from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other depending on the requirements of specific political constituencies.

Indian politics has not seen the end of ideological politics but what it vitnesses the reorientation of ideology from the philosophical root to the personal root. The 2019 Lok Sabha election introduces a phase where the political parties, which are major contenders, represent a battle of personalised ideology. Absence of an ideologically driven political party in the main race of electoral competition is seen as the non-ideological moment of Indian electoral politics.

Featuring ‘Modi-ism’ and ‘Mamata-ism’: Extremities of 2019 Lok Sabha Election

The Lok Sabha election of 2019 seems to be a battleground of two extreme level of politics, one centering on the BJP, a large nationwide political party with a dynamic past array of leaders like late Atal Behari Vajpayee, Murli Manohar Joshi, Lal Krishna Advani and the present leader-trio of Narendra Modi-Amit Shah-Arun Jaitley trying to centralise power and carve out a place for India at the world stage particularly in the economic aspect. Based on oratorical skills, Modi-ism seems to win over the masses with ‘illusory promises’, critical appraisal of the opponents and mature portrayal of national security protection issue but with very rudimentary organisational root across the country.

The other extreme is the assorted ‘salad bowl’ of Opposition political parties from various regions of India with the aim of federalising the Centre or circumscribing the Centre through pressures and concerted opposition. After the breakdown of the TDP-BJP alliance, Chandrababu Naidu spearheaded the anti-Centre anti-BJP politics but finally from January 2019 the baton was taken up by Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal. The mahagathbandhan assemblage on January 19 in Kolkata followed by the nationwide support to Mamata Banerjee on her position in the CBI-State Police controversy in West Bengal made Mamata Banerjee the face of Opposition politics. ‘Mamata-ism’ is a process of emotional popular politics strongly rooted in the demands and aspirations of domestic political constituencies like the price hike in fuel and LPG cylinders, the effect of demonetisation and the blatant exposure of Central negligence in the escape of Nirav Modi as well as questioning the timing for the Pulwama strike exposing the internal intelligence. ‘Mamata-ism’ is a form of politics where the ‘social is political’ in the sense of raising questions and doubts on various social, economic and political and security issues to surcharge the public opinion with the electoral mood throughout the tenure of a government as if every day is an election day where the government needs to be exposed day in and day out. Thus ‘Mamata-ism’ stands for relentless oppositional commitment to dismantle the government of the day and such a passion seems to have engulfed the majority of State-based political parties to rally around a common cause of dismantling the BJP-led NDA-II Government at the Centre.

However, the electoral strategic equation floated by Mamata Banerjee of ‘one vs one’ meaning the BJP candidate to be contested by any one of the Opposition parties having strong hold in the respective Lok Sabha constituency was not taken into final consideration by political parties and therefore the passion remains as a political passion and not an electoral passion. So one can say the two extreme choices before the electorate of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls—‘Modi-ism’ and ‘Mamata-ism’—are fraught with spectacularity devoid of any the substantial vision of governance for the country at large. The vacuum thus created on substantial visionary document on governance can be optimally utilised by the Indian National Congress, a party cashing on its last electoral strategic card—to project Priyanka Gandhi as the Prime Ministerial candidate.

Concluding Observations: 2019 Lok Sabha Election as a System-defining Moment


The 2019 Lok Sabha election is indeed a system-defining moment in Indian politics because it would either put India back on the coalition politics track or would instil again a one dominant party system model. Whichever may be the direction post-May 2019, political parties and elections have became more and more leader-centric who are professing their own mannerism as some form of an ideology and accommodating the vision of the party within it. In the immediate battleground in April-May 2019 for the Lok Sabha elections, it is surely a contest between the ‘speedbraker’ Mamata Banerjee who allegedly creates hurdles in any programme and policy through her oppositional politics and the ‘expiry babu’ Narendra Modi who allegedly keeps on losing the moral legitimacy to stay in power (Uri and Pulwama attacks, suffering of people due to demonetisation, Nirav Modi’s case and Rafale deal) but clings more strongly to the seat of power. The way the national media focused the attention to the rallies of both Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi on April 4 in West Bengal reflects that the context is essentially between these two ‘critical’ personality traits—Opposition and government power, respectively.

In the midst of this duality, it is the Indian National Congress which can in the 17th Lok Sabha election become the single largest party yet fall short of the magic number of seats in the Lok Sabha and can form a minority government with outside support of the mahagathbandhan constituents and the Left Front. This simple most likely situation that was building up from January 2019 onwards has been stifled after the ECI’s declaration of the seven phases of election by the INC, mahagathbandhan constituent and the Left Front by failing to make pre-electoral seat sharing alliance not only at the Central level but also at federal levels. As a result the venom of their criticisms are diversifying between so many opponents missing the critical edge of criticisms towards the BJP. It is also giving the BJP an opportunity to mock at the disintegrated posture of Opposition politics in India and to tilt electoral opinion in favour of a stable one-party model of governance. Even if the BJP succeeds in tilting electoral opinion in this manner, the number of seats secured by the BJP-led NDA will be far less than it secured in 2014 as both anti-incumbency and anti-Modi riddles are reaching the shores of Indian Lok Sabha election in 2019.

This election is system-defining in another way—the continuing waning of votes of the Left political parties, if reflected again by the electoral verdict, needs to be seriously engaged academically, sociologically and practically. Only revitalised Left political parties with a philosophy of ‘liberal Left’ a la the Nehruvian model of governance in India can restore and retain the plurality, argumentativeness and accomodativeness of Indian democracy in the days to come.

The author is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Kalyani, West Bengal.

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