1999, Battleground Bellari: Videshi Bahu vs Swadeshi Beti

The parliamentary poll of 1999, in a sense, marked the rise of Sonia Gandhi. That year, making her electoral debut, Mrs Gandhi contested from two seats – the only time she has done so. Mrs Gandhi contested both from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, a pocket borough of the Nehru-Gandhi family, (won with over 3 lakh votes) and Bellari in Karnataka (won by a margin of only 56,100).

At the preliminary stage, Mrs Gandhi initially decided to stand only from Amethi, which she was confident of winning. Her advisors however suspected that the BJP, to keep her out of the parliament, might place an ailing dummy candidate whose death would postpone the elections. Besides Sanjay Singh who had won the Amethi seat for the BJP in 1998, was thought likely to resort to violent methods to get the poll invalidated in Amethi. Singh was the Nehru-Gandhi family’s friend-turned-foe. Third, if Mrs Gandhi contested from only one constituency, then the BJP might pitch one heavyweight candidate and concentrate everything in that one seat; if she fought from multiple seats, then the saffron party’s focus could be dissipated. Hence Bellari was meant as a safety net for Mrs Gandhi because, right from 1952, the Congress had never lost that seat.

On the day Mrs Gandhi went to file her nomination, she went via Hyderabad, ostensibly headed for Cudappah, while party general secretary, Ghulam Nabi Azad was supposed to be going to Bellary. However, APCC Chief YS Rajasekhara Reddy’s not waiting for Mrs Gandhi and leaving for Cudappah by himself gave away the clue that he would never have done so if Mrs Gandhi was also headed there; the SPG preparing for security in Bellary confirmed the suspicions that some BJP leaders had had.

With Cudappah in mind, BJP General Secretary, Venkaiah Naidu, had been discussing with Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu the relative merits of fielding a popular film star, like Jaya Prada and Vijayashanti (who had lately joined the party), and shortlisted Vijayashanti. However, when V Naidu was intimated of tightening security at Bellary, he realised Mrs Gandhi was going to file her nomination from Bellary, and after consulting the Union commerce minister Ramakrishna Hegde decided on Sushma Swaraj instead. A Union minister and a former chief minister of Delhi, Swaraj was considered one of the staunchest critics of the Congress president because of her foreign origin. But Swaraj had publicly announced she would not be contesting. In the early hours on the last day of filing the nominations, Swaraj’s name was knocked about between BJP President Kushabhau Thakre, Home Minister Advani and the prime minister as well. Swaraj was booked on an early morning commercial flight from Delhi to Bangalore, and then for a helicopter to take her to Bellary, where she arrived with only an hour and a half to spare before nominations closed.

The needless hide-and-seek approach of the Congress came to attach to the contest at Bellary a kind of significance that was otherwise unwarranted. Swaraj's colleague Pramod Mahajan had once said all that hush-hush over Gandhi's nomination made it appear as though Gandhi was fearful of the contest.

Sonia filed her nomination at 2.20 pm on August 18, just 40 minutes before the closing of nominations. Shortly after, the BJP brought in Mrs Swaraj to file her nomination. Despite the huge crowds that turned up for Swaraj, Sonia Gandhi managed to win a convincing victory before she vacated the seat and went to the Lok Sabha representing Amethi.

2004: ‘India Shining’, ‘Feel Good’, and yet…

The majority government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee brought in profound stability at the Centre. This ultimately boosted Indian economy after a long period of time. The majority government provided stability, which gave confidence to the ruling BJP-led NDA alliance. Steady improvement in the some segments of the agriculture sector, with clear improvement in secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy, helped a growth rate for the economy that was the highest since liberalization began.

It was in this backdrop of confidence and positivity that the BJP-led NDA alliance put up two slogans for its parliamentary poll campaign in 2004, “Feel Good” and “India Shining”. The BJP or the NDA started campaigning that the people of India are “feeling good” and, as a whole and “India is shining” as though they were advertising a commodity.

However, the slogans could be said to have boomeranged. The mood in the villages of India did not mirror the middle-class euphoria of the cities. It was not only the rural poor that were suffering, but the wealthier elements of the rural society as well. The division between India and Bharat was evident. The differences between the rural and the urban in terms of aspirations and achievements had never been this glaring – as became clear in the Andhra assembly elections, when the poster boy of corporate urban India N Chandrababu Naidu was thrown out of power.

It was probably for the first time in Indian electoral history that poll slogans were held responsible to a large extent for the defeat of a party. Many critics of the campaign said that the growth story of urban India was not quite matched by the continued agrarian distress and rural backwardness in the media portrayal of the NDA growth story. Such critics pointed out that the slogans annoyed the people whose faces were not shining and who did not feel good. Those two slogans are believed to have stirred and awakened rage, and the outburst was reflected in the poll results, although in a silent manner.

The defenders of the campaign, however, argued that the idea was good, but it was possibly failed by the NDA government. The BJP’s Sudhanshu Mittal, a close associate of former Union minister Pramod Mahajan, who was the architect of the India Shining campaign, defended the campaign as a “popular” one. In Mittal’s words, “The success of a campaign can be evaluated from its recall value.”

Mittal went on to say, he contradiction between the ad and the product is so sharp, people do not believe the ad.

Two weeks after the result of the 2004 general election was declared, Advani breaking his silence admitted that the twin phrases of “feel good” and “India shining” cost the party dearly. He accepted that the catchphrase of “India shining” gave the opposition the opportunity to highlight poverty, developmental imbalance, farmers issues and youth unemployment as missing from that India story.

Excerpted with permission from Chambers Book of Indian Election Facts, Surbek Biswas and Kingshuk Chatterjee, Hachette India.