Overview of Pre-Election Political Scenario in India
World's largest democracy will have a general election in seven phases from 11th April 2019 to 19th May 2019. Counting of votes will be done on 23rd May 2019. This is the time when everyone in India becomes a political pundit and has a clear view on who will win and who ought to win the elections. I consider myself an exception. Unlike my fellow countrymen, I am scared of predicting election results. Nevertheless, as a political observer and activist who has spent many decades observing the elections of India, I like to look at the currents, undercurrents and the political processes at play.
If India was a presidential democracy and direct elections were being held for choosing the President of India, there would have been no doubt whatsoever that Narendra Modi would have won hands down. There is no challenger to Narendra Modi in any party as far as personal charisma, popularity and stature are concerned. Rahul Gandhi does not come anywhere close. And there is absolutely no one else who even deserves a mention here.
Unfortunately for Narendra Modi, India does not have a presidential system of government. Voters will not choose Modi or Rahul but will choose a local Member of Parliament. This is where Modi’s troubles begin. Converting personal popularity of the supreme leader to votes for local MP is not a direct equation.
The worst scenario for Modi and his party BJP is the following contradiction - everyone wants Modi and expects him to win; every voter is so sure of Modi coming to power that the voter does not mind voting in the local constituency based on the local candidates involved. The sentiment is that Modi is coming to power for sure on the basis of support from everywhere else; but in my constituency I have this bad candidate from BJP or a good candidate from some other party; so I can vote for this other party in my constituency without affecting Modi's chances of coming to power. In other words, pro-Modi guys become so confident of Modi victory that they do not go out and vote for Modi or even vote for someone else.
I often use analogy of war to explain and understand the electoral and political process. Television channels and social media are useful for creating hype. They are like the air force in a war – can be used very effectively for bombardment. Any army veteran will tell you that while the air force plays a critical role in any modern war, one cannot win a country unless the foot soldiers engage in close combat and win one bridge, one outpost, one street, one building at a time. Electoral battles in India are no different.
As the electoral war of 2019 unfolds in India, BJP and Modi have a clear advantage in air power. They have tightened their influence (some say, control) over all TV channels. They have a large team which is known to be aggressive on all social media. Their efforts on TV and social media are backed by enormously huge money power and state power. No other political party comes anywhere close. Having said that it must be recognized, it is not a walkover for Modi. The team (led by Prashant Kishor) that brought Modi to power in 2014 was disbanded after the victory. The present team at BJP headquarters is no match for the young professional team of 2014. Moreover, large numbers of independent anti-Modi netizens are indulging in guerilla warfare with small pin pricks that are insignificant individually but may not be so cumulatively.
As against disorganized anti-Modi netizens, BJP enjoys support of large numbers of committed neo-Modi-ites (also called Bhakts by some, but Bhakts may include traditional BJP supporters). I use the expression neo-Modi-ites as distinct from traditional BJP and RSS supporters. Most neo-Modi-ites are new converts to the faith. They have no political experience. None of them has ever attended a meeting of BJP. None of them is willing to act as a door-to-door campaigner for any BJP candidate. Their only political activity is in the form of forwarding the innumerable memes and such propaganda messages created by the professional social media team of BJP. The neo-Modi-ites act as a force multiplier as far as BJP's air power is concerned, but they do not add to BJP's foot soldiers.
Neo-Modi-ites are spread across the globe. They thanklessly fight battles everyday on WhatsApp, Facebook etc. confronting their own friends and family members for Modi. Other political parties also have their corresponding warriors on the social media. A close friend and classmate keeps annoying everyone on our WhatsApp group. He is an admirer of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). I asked him to visit the local office of AAP and do some active work for them. He refused. AAP, Congress and the communists have their own versions of neo-Modi-ites but the numbers are small. Of course, as pointed out earlier there are free birds who belong to no party but are passionate about getting Modi out. These free birds are hurting BJP and Modi by a thousand small cuts – each damaging the aura that is sought to be built around Modi. Nevertheless, BJP and Modi remain the big daddy of social media as well as all other means of mass communication.
Extraordinarily superior muscle power of BJP's air borne forces is supposed to be supplemented by well-oiled cadre based organizational structure of RSS and BJP. RSS is modeled on the Catholic Church with its own clergy and laity. The clergy (called pracharaks), generally speaking, remain unmarried like in the Church though they need not follow celibacy (probably the same way as in Church). RSS clergy controls and supports the BJP. Of course, the relationship is complex and is neither linear nor one-way. Let us not get into that at this point. The laity or the common believers (who are not pracharak or former pracharak) have a very limited say in the matters of RSS and BJP.
There is no other organization (including various Churches) in India which has the reach of RSS in terms of numbers and spread whether of clergy or of laity. RSS clergy and laity are central to the vast organization of BJP. In the past two and a half decades, BJP has opened its doors wider and wider admitting all and sundry to its fold. As BJP’s participation in power increased, a large number of people with eyes clearly set on fruits of power moved in. Two decades back, BJP workers were known for their commitment and selfless service. It is difficult to say the same any more. It will not be an exaggeration to say that power-brokers have to a large extent elbowed out the ideologically committed RSS laity (but not the clergy and former members of the clergy).
RSS clergy still occupies key posts in the BJP hierarchy. But, they have 'adjusted' to the new culture. As they have transformed and as their life style has started accommodating flashy vehicles, expensive mobile phones and fancy cosmetics, they have stopped being role models and their hold on party volunteers and leaders has decreased considerably. It may also be added that the focus on win-ability and pragmatism propounded by Modi-Shah combine has also contributed to everyone shedding ideals and ideology with high speed.
Problem with an ideologically aligned giant like RSS-BJP changing colors is that the change is partial, unfolds to the advantage of the powerful, and makes the lower ranks suffer. While in Congress and other parties, there are clear norms and practices for sharing spoils of power, BJP is shy of doing it openly. In the process, BJP's top leaders make billions while the foot-soldier merely gets long sermons. This is a contradiction that cannot be brushed under the carpet for too long by BJP leadership.
BJP's foot soldiers are today a disgruntled, dissatisfied and frustrated lot. RSS laity which at one time formed the backbone of BJP has been sidelined and is neither in a position to influence matters nor is inclined to do so. The clergy (including former members of the clergy) that occupies key positions has lost the moral authority and hence, is more interested in saving their own positions and power rather than pursuing any ideological or idealist agenda.
It may be argued that notwithstanding the problems with BJP's foot-soldiers, they are still a much better lot than the completely disorganized Congress and other parties. Yes and No! While there is no denying that BJP remains a much better organized army than its rivals, the fact is that others (including Congress) do not operate as one army but as many private militias. In Congress, one is aligned to the local leader or the group leader who takes care of everyone aligned and loyal. Rules of sharing spoils of victory are well set by tradition and practice. The net result is that the lowest level party worker is better taken care of in Congress than in BJP. For example, even after fifteen years of BJP’s rule in the state of Madhya Pradesh, average lowest level worker of Congress is much more prosperous than his counterpart in BJP. Private militias of Congress are better fighting machines than the monolithic army of BJP. The private militias gain from decentralized control and command as well as from innovation and dynamism of local leaders. In contrast, clergy controlled BJP is often bureaucratic and discourages local-level intelligence, creativity, innovation and dynamism. The clergy more often than not looks for persons who will do their bidding and hounds out anyone seen to be ambitious and sharp.
In essence, as the general elections of 2019 approach on one hand is a vast army of demoralized, frustrated soldiers controlled by a dysfunctional bureaucratic structure and on the other hand are innumerable miniscule private armies each with highly motivated foot-soldiers and dynamic leaders. Yes, of course, the grand army is supported by superior air power, while the private militias derive hardly any support from air. Viewed from a distance, it is an unequal fight with scales heavily tilted in favor of Modi and BJP. My friends who listen to debates on TV are sure that Modi is returning to power with a thumping majority. On the other hand, the ones who are active in the political field are not so sure.
All political parties in India suffer from a malaise that India is notorious for - corruption. Candidates receive money from their parties and from donors. If a candidate sees no chance of winning (and sometimes even otherwise), he / she will try to pocket the money and not spend it. There was a senior leader in the state of Madhya Pradesh. He was notorious for aiming to collect double the budget needed for contesting an election and then squeezing spends with an aim to spend only half of the budget. Attempts to pocket money are not limited to the candidate alone. Almost every senior and junior political leader indulges in it to some degree or the other. This tends to affect a centralized army more than it affects parties that are federations of private militias.
As money available in BJP has increased, the tendency to pocket it for personal gain has also increased substantially. In private militias, the dividing line between party / political funds and personal funds is non-existent; so the sense of ownership is higher. Each local unit of a private militia works as an independent self-sustaining militia that must make the best use of funds available. In BJP, every leader is insecure and the fear that the party bureaucracy or RSS clergy will one day turn against him / her are ever-present. Stories abound about how this or that former respected member of party bureaucracy had to struggle to get his daily bread after the party threw him out heartlessly. It may be pointed out that even the most efficient and committed may be thrown out in the most disgraceful manner. I have witnessed the days when Narendra Modi had been benched and his disgraceful exit seemed only a matter of time. This is not meant to be disrespectful towards Modi. It is merely to point out the fact that given the internal dynamics and intrigues of BJP-Sangh combine, no one can claim to be safe or sure. So, everyone, one's boss as well as one's juniors are all trying to save for the bad day.
The tendency to steal from party or election funds for personal gains can be disastrous in a situation like BJP is facing today. There is the common perception among party sympathizers that Modi is winning against all odds and despite all the follies of the ground-level party workers. Aha, if the party is winning anyway and if Modi is going to be the next PM anyway, why spend money? Why not be safe and save some for bad times, which may come irrespective of the party in power? This can lead to ground-level local but widespread paralysis of the party.
The woes of BJP at ground-level may well be increased by its experiments in ticket distribution. As first indications are coming in, it seems that the party may replace many of its existing members of parliament with new faces. There was a time when BJP could field anyone from a seat and the party organization used to rise up to support the candidate even keeping aside personal dislike for the chosen one. Presently, the party organization is not as obedient as it used to be. If party ticket is given to an unknown new person, the party leaders may not ditch him / her on the face of it; it is most likely that they will use the opportunity to extract maximum money from the candidate and the party with a clear idea of saving large portions of the money for a bad day. It seems that Kiran Bedi had experienced the same phenomenon in 2015 Delhi assembly elections. The point that is to be noted here is that BJP faces a difficult situation if it tries to get in unknown new faces. BJP party machinery may not go with the top leaders’ choice. In fact, it may act to cheat the candidate and the party without any moral qualms.
The situation may be no better in other parties including Congress. However, the key difference is that they realize this and do not attempt to give party tickets to new faces on the basis of personal last-minute whims and fancies. One does not get a ticket in Congress unless one can show that a local warlord is in support and is willing to foot the bill. As and when someone gets ticket, the sponsoring warlord gets into action; while all other lords withdraw (at least theoretically, practically the withdrawal is not complete and damaging an opposing warlord’s protégé is almost a norm). It is this private militia type organization of Congress and various other parties that make their management relatively easy compared to managing a monolithic bureaucratic centralized party like BJP.
Last but not the least is the strange phenomenon of collapse of entire B-line of BJP physically and medically. The party, in the last decade, has lost a large number of stalwarts. Many others are medically unfit to face elections. I am not aware of any other party having faced such a collapse of its second-rung of leaders during the past five decades.
One may conclude the above discussion by saying that even though BJP and Modi have a clear advantage in air power, they are in a difficult spot as far as ground forces and realities are concerned. Their situation seems really challenging when one looks at the numbers in Sixteenth Lok Sabha (elected in 2014 and presently outgoing). As per the official website of Lok Sabha, BJP presently has strength of 268 in a house which requires 272 for clear majority. Narendra Modi has carried on as Prime Minister for the past many months on the strength of support from allies. It may be pointed out that as the last election result had rolled in 2014, BJP had 282 members in Lok Sabha. Clearly, the party has been on a downward curve moving slowly but certainly.
To add to the problems of BJP is the undeniable fact that BJP had reached a saturation point in the states that supported BJP in 2014. For example, the party won 25 out of 25 seats in Rajasthan, 26 out of 26 in Gujarat, 10 out of 11 in Chhattisgarh, 27 out of 29 in Madhya Pradesh, 71 out of 80 in Uttar Pradesh. There seems to be no way for the BJP to improve on its 2014 tally in almost every state that voted en masse during the previous general elections. The party is hoping to register major gains in the states where the party was absent in 2014. This seems difficult to say the least.
Writing on the wall seems to be clear for the BJP. General elections of 2019 are not easy for the party. While no clear winner may emerge, there is no denying that BJP will remain a significant force in every post-poll scenario. Not sure, if the same can be said of Modi and his coterie. BJP and RSS are with Modi because they see him as their key vote-catcher. If he loses some of his sheen after the elections, the RSS clergy may not be kind to him.
As I said earlier, I remain wary of predicting election results. I wish all the best to BJP and also to Modi for the elections and for the deal making that seems sure to start soon after the results are announced.