As the temperatures sharply dip in the national capital, the political heat is rising. The BJP’s defeat in three Hindi heartland states means that we enter a big general election year with a marked shift in momentum. A galvanized opposition, restive allies and murmurs of dissent within, suddenly the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duopoly no longer seems quite so impregnable.

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In 2004, a few weeks before the general elections and a day after the Lucknow stampede in which 21 poor women were killed while collecting free saris, then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee admitted to me in an interview that the tragedy had dented the ‘India Shining’ image being aggressively promoted by his government. “There are areas of darkness, no doubt about it, and we should be worried,” he said with a contemplative air typical of the man. It was almost as if amidst the euphoria of a near-certain re-election, the politician in the hotseat sensed his own limitations.

For four years and a bit, every time there has been a major state election, the dominant narrative is to call it a ‘test’ for prime minister Narendra Modi and his Sancho Panza, Amit Shah. The truth is, barring defeats in Bihar and Delhi in 2015, and a ‘stolen’ mandate in Goa in 2017, the BJP leadership has successfully passed almost every election test ( in Punjab, it was the BJP ally, the Akali Dal, who was the big loser).

Politics in the media age is increasingly about perception management which in turn is about shaping the narrative to your advantage. The UPA 2 government lost the plot when they simply couldn’t handle the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement. The most bizarre episode was when senior ministers from the Manmohan Singh government went to receive yoga guru turned ‘black money crusader’ Baba Ramdev at the airport, only to arrest him 24 hours later.

One of the more persistent criticisms against the Narendra Modi government has been that far too many of its ministers seem to have very little work to do and as a result end up saying/doing things that have no connection with their assigned ministry. A classic example is Giriraj Singh, minister of state for micro, small and medium enterprises: rather than focus on reviving MSMEs in post-demonetisation India, Singh is best known for routinely making bizarre remarks, often asking critics of the government to be packed off to Pakistan.

Rahul Gandhi was just seventeen years old when the Bofors gun payoff scandal first exploded, a corruption charge that would tar his father Rajiv Gandhi's reputation and eventually push the Congress towards defeat in the 1989 elections. Now, three decades later, the Congress president seems determined to extract 'revenge' for his father's political downfall by making the Rafale aircraft deal a centre-piece of his 2019 election campaign. But is 2019 really going to be 1989 all over again and will Rafale become the Bofors of our times?

Amit Shah is often credited as the BJP president who has converted Indian elections from routine local fights into an all-out life and death ‘war’. Little surprise then when Mr Shah was quoted as having told a gathering of BJP social media activists in Pune that they must see themselves as ‘soldiers going into battle who take no prisoners’. Mr Shah may have been only trying to motivate his flock but the sharp rhetoric reflects a new election dynamic where a tweet, a Facebook post or a WhatsApp forward are the modern-day arrows and bullets aimed at bruising political opponents.

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