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.
A simple photo-op can sometimes reveal the entire political picture. Last month, as Rahul Gandhi hosted an iftaar party, his high table did not include a single opposition party chieftain: most of them chose to send their representatives instead while the Samajawadi party gave the event a miss altogether. The message was clear: most opposition parties do not see the Congress as a first among equals, even less so Mr Gandhi as an unquestioned magnet for opposition unity.
In the mid-1990s, as VP Singh was scrambling to help form a non-BJP, non-Cong ‘Third Front’ government, we asked the former prime minister if such a ‘khichdi’ government was good for the country. “I don’t know about being desirable, but it is inevitable,” was his sharp response. Singh was seen as the original mascot of third front politics: in 1989, he became prime minister by forging a coalition with, quite miraculously, the outside support of the BJP and the left. The single point agenda then was to remove the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government.