It would not be a cliché to say that the forthcoming national elections would be one of the most important and, probably, one of the most bitterly fought elections in independent India. The election fever is already high and everyone seems to be waiting with bated breath to find out what surprises it throws up. While the outcome of one election does not determine the fate of a nation, it does provide clear indications of the direction the country is taking.
No one polarises opinions in the manner in which the current prime minister Narendra Modi does. The two diametrically opposing camps vehemently espouse their points of view in a no-holds-barred manner. The first believes that the sincere efforts Mr Modi is making are not being appreciated due to the pathological hatred for him; in fact, his efforts are deliberately and seriously being undermined.
They feel he needs one more term to turn the country around and anything else would dilute the impact of the commendable work he has already accomplished over the past five years.
The second set of people believe Mr Modi’s tenure to be a disaster that has undermined the very idea of India and the sooner we have an alternative government, the better for the country.
They say a week is a long time in politics; 12 months being an eternity. The past 12 months seem to have brought about a very significant transformation in election prospects. From a time when the second term for Mr Modi was a foregone conclusion, there now appears a realistic chance of displacing him, especially after the outcome of the elections in various states last month. How convincing is that assessment?
The general elections are still a few months away, which happens to be more than ‘a week’. A lot can happen during that period. We can make an assessment on the basis of the situation prevailing now and what we believe is likely to happen over the coming months.
I believe there are two critical factors which will determine the outcome of the national elections. First, how successful can the Opposition be in putting up single, united candidates in each of the 542 electoral constituencies?
The Opposition parties and their leaders have to be ruthless in assessing each and every seat to put up the most viable candidate or party, without being swayed by any alternate or extraneous concerns. Set aside your ego, animosity, historical skirmishes and any other considerations that are likely to side track winning ability. You will sink or swim together.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) steered by Mr Modi is likely to muster sufficiently large number of votes in most constituencies to be able to defeat a divided Opposition. The only way out is to be firmly and ruthlessly united.
Obviously, the Opposition leaders are acutely aware of this fact. Many amongst them must view the ensuing elections as probably their last chance to remain relevant in Indian politics and not be pushed into oblivion.
Mr Modi’s rise has already dented their political prospects; they can hardly afford to suffer another setback. They will also be helped by their pathological hatred of Mr Modi and the political ideology he represents and practises.
If, despite this, they do not present a united front, they have no hope and the electorate will vote for one more term for the BJP and Mr Modi who will acquire an aura of invincibility that will take a long time for the Opposition to shake off.
The second is the narrative in the run up to the elections. Let us face the fact that there is no other leader who can even remotely compete with Mr Modi in setting the agenda for debate.
This is despite Congress party chief Rahul Gandhi’s recent upsurge in popularity and renewed confidence; he apparently appears far more comfortable in his role than he ever did before.
It is Mr Modi who will decide the narrative for the national elections. It is he who will determine what becomes a core issue, which the voters will vote on. Will it be religion and caste and the accompanying divisiveness that he banks on? Will it be development and the economy; does he feel confident of his performance over the past five years and of having delivered on his promises?
Will Mr Modi present himself as a messiah who is destined to single-handedly take India forward into the 21st century? Or, will he have the humility to say that while he did make an honest attempt, his work largely remains unfulfilled. Will he be able to make himself say that he probably appreciates governance in India better now and needs the next five years to work humbly on the nuts and bolts that clog the Indian government? Arrogance and supreme confidence vs humility with sincerity?
I believe people are largely put off by the conceit, the egoistic behaviour and over the top claims unfailingly made by the BJP and Mr Modi. If he continues in the same mode during the elections, the electorate is quite capable of teaching him a lesson. On the other hand, a humble, honest, down to earth avatar will jell more with them and the results might be more to his liking.
Will he be able to shed his ego especially after enjoying years of popularity and unfettered power and set the narrative accordingly? Or do the BJP and Mr Modi believe that his personal appeal to the voters is sufficient to sway them in their favour?
He is smart, in fact, very smart and knows the pulse of the people in the same manner that Indira Gandhi did decades back. But, as with Mrs Gandhi, a few years in power are bound to create a chasm in the relationship with voters and the connect with the grassroots gets easily broken. Which version of Mr Modi we see during the campaign would be interesting not only for behavioural scientists but will also determine the outcome of one of the most crucial elections in modern India.
(Sunil Mahajan, a financial consultant and teacher, has over three decades experience in the corporate sector, consultancy and academics.).