Welcome to The Election Fix. Every Monday, Thursday and Sunday until the results of India’s Lok Sabha polls are declared on May 23, we will bring you all the news, analysis and opinion worth paying attention to.
This week, we take a look at whether the Congress silence post-Pulwama was tactical or has allowed the BJP to dominate the narrative, why voters may be unhappy with the BJP regardless of air strikes on Pakistan, what jaggery prices have to do with the elections and which party Swarajya has endorsed (spoiler alert).
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The Big Story: Where did the Congress go?
Through December and January, it seemed as if the Congress – having just won three North Indian states in direct fights with the Bharatiya Janata Party – was on the front foot, setting the terms of the debate. Then Pulwama and Balakot happened.
The suicide bombing of the paramilitary convoy in Kashmir and the subsequent conflict on the Line of Control, including an Indian Air Force attack on Pakistani territory, turned the political focus to national security. Suddenly, it seemed as if the BJP had taken back control of the narrative and the Congress-led Opposition was altogether missing.
Some of that may simply have to do with the BJP’s control of the media. A Scroll.in analysis found that Congress President Rahul Gandhi still did turn up to 23 events over the 26 days after the Pulwama attack, compared to 46 for Narendra Modi, but the prime minister got nearly all the coverage.
Yet, it is also true that this period coincided with BJP chief Amit Shah assiduously sorting out his party’s alliances across the board, even as the Congress has had bitter disagreements with the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi, the Bahujan Samaj Party-Samajwadi Party alliance in Uttar Pradesh, Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh leader Prakash Ambedkar in Maharashtra, and beyond.
Even as the Congress insists that everything is fine in its corner, it has had to deal with headlines about its leaders crossing over to other parties, while the BJP has brought back allies, such as the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the Asom Gana Parishad in Assam, that only a few months ago were very vocally attacking the saffron party.
The impression has been created that the Congress has been egotistic and unwilling to budge in a time of crisis while Modi and Shah, who are often accused of being authoritarian, have been willing to concede territory in order to stitch up alliances. With the first day of voting now less than a month away, can the Congress get back on course in time?
There is now also a growing belief that the Balakot air strike has solidified the BJP’s frontrunner position, with some even saying the result is a done deal. But this could easily be one of those “conventional wisdom” presumptions that journalists (usually from Delhi) tend to espouse.
Two opinion polls this week offered different conclusions.
Both showed the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance comfortably ahead of the Opposition. But the CNX opinion poll showed the BJP getting nine fewer seats than the same survey in December 2018.
CVoter, though it does not give the NDA a majority, found a huge jump in Modi’s popularity and satisfaction with the government following the Balakot air strike. It also showed that national security had overtaken unemployment as the “biggest concern” the country faces.
This feeling, however, may not last through the election. Indeed, it is possible that the Congress’s decision to keep a low-profile might have been a tactic to avoid being drawn into a national security debate. It would much rather discuss the economy, agricultural distress and unemployment.
But, with most of the media in the BJP’s corner, the Congress does not have the levers to control the terms of the debate. There is one exception to that, one Congress leader the media does not seem to have gotten enough of so far – Priyanka Gandhi. Will the party lean much more on her to take back the narrative?
Do you think the “Balakot bump” is real? Has the Congress lost control of the narrative? Let us know by writing in to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Policy and reportage
- Harish Damodaran gives you an indication of why voters might be unhappy with this government, regardless of Balakot and nationalism. Last week, he pointed out that farm income growth had fallen to a 14-year low, and in a new report this week, he showed how the average year-on-year rural wage growth has been far lower than it was during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance years.
- The East is leading the way with women. Odisha’s Biju Janata Dal promised to give 33% of its Lok Sabha tickets to women. Soon after, West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress said that 40% of its candidates would be women. Will the national parties follow suit?
- Ajit Ranade looks beyond individual fights to the broader concerns about our electoral processes: leaders that are simply not representative of India’s people, whether you are looking at age, gender, wealth and so on. As both The Print and the Hindustan Times point out, Lok Sabha seats have not grown in relation to the population, which means Members of Parliament often represent a huge number of people.
- Demonetisation and a sand mining ban hit the labourers of Bihar hard, reports Parth MN from Patna, where work is still difficult to come by.
- At first, All India United Democratic Front chief Badruddin Ajmal said he expected that the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill would harm the BJP. “But then I realised the ‘josh’ of the protests has gone down,” he added, using the word for passion. “I don’t know why…As the tempo is lost, I don’t think it will affect the BJP.”
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Elections 2019 on Scroll.in
- Vijayta Lalwani points out how the Indian government’s “Namumkin ab mumkin hai”, or the impossible is now possible, slogan dovetails neatly into the BJP’s “Modi hai to mumkin hai”, with Modi it’s possible.
- The Anantnag Lok Sabha seat, which has been vacant since 2016, will vote in three phases, setting a new precedent even for strife-torn Kashmir, write Safwat Zargar and Ipsita Chakravarty.
- Kerala’s Left Front is already out campaigning, even as the Congress-led Opposition and the Bharatiya Janata Party are still getting their plans in shape, reports TA Ameerudheen.
- Ajaz Ashraf says the Congress, which has increasingly pushed its Hindu image, cannot be the first choice for Muslims, at least in places where the fight is not a bipolar contest.
- The Congress has settled on advertising technology firm Silver Push as its election partner. The company got into trouble a few years ago for embedding ultrasonic beeps into TV ads that could be picked up by cell phones, raising concerns about privacy.
- First, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar said he wouldn’t contest these elections. Then he said he would. Now he has yet again decided that he will not be a Lok Sabha candidate, with buzz suggesting he is making way for his grand nephew, Parth Pawar, to contest.
- For all its claims of being the party with a difference, the BJP at its Parliamentary Board meeting decided its only criteria for candidates will be “winnability”. “The party is likely to sacrifice many of its policies, like denying seats for those over 75 and its aversion to dynasty politics, to ensure winnable candidates,” an unnamed BJP leader told The Indian Express.
- Expect jaggery prices to spike over the next few weeks. Why? Because it will be in demand to make the liquor that tends to be popular at election time.
Weekly WhatsApp forward
The text says, “Across 543 seats, Modi is the one running. Who is the candidate? Forget this question. Stick to the aim, vote BJP.”
Op-eds & analysis:
- Swarajya officially endorsed Modi for a second term. The most telling bit of the piece announcing the endorsement, written by R Jagannathan, may be this: “As a general rule, one should give most incumbents a second term as long as they are seen to have made strong efforts to improve the country’s economic standing and solve its people’s problems.”
- Political scientist Suhas Palshikar says that, even if the BJP loses the election, the five years of Modi have changed the terms of the debate. “The Opposition, instead of contesting the BJP’s imagination, may choose to squeeze itself into the same ideological space that the BJP operates in,” he writes.
- Where are the BJP’s next generation leaders? DK Singh of The Print says former leaders such as LK Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee were far better than Modi and Shah at nurturing talent.
- The BJP’s re-election chances will come down to how the party performs in these nine states, which have historically given the BJP at least 70% of its total Lok Sabha seats, finds Roshan Kishore.
- Under Modi and Shah the BJP transformed into a party that absorbed a lot more Other Backward Class members and even leaders. Dilip Mandal says the same is now slowly happening to the Congress.
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