The BJP seems so rattled by the Congress manifesto that it has lined up all its big guns to speak against it. The Prime Minister calls the manifesto a “fraud” and full of “fake” promises, Finance minister Arun Jaitley says it is “unimplementable” and “dangerous”, and defence ninister Nirmala Sitharaman says it will “weaken” the armed forces.
Actually, by giving precedence to the economic agenda, compared to emotive issues, the Congress has positioned itself as one that is serious and committed to “bread and butter” issues, which touch the common man, particularly the economically weaker sections.
Announcement of the Congress manifesto has thus clearly delineated the ideological contours of this election with the Congress openly standing for “roti, kapda, makan (basics like bread, clothes and home)” and the BJP standing for “nationalism and security”.
Both are equally important issues for the citizens, but which one will weigh on their minds at the time of voting is the moot question.
Revving up nationalistic pride and national security in the backdrop of Pulwama and Balakot, followed by ASAT, the BJP feels building the right jingoism wave will lead it back to power.
It is in this context that any debate on Article 370 and 35 A are also very critical for the BJP, as it will continue to keep the focus on the issue of national integrity. Scrapping of Article 370, building Ram Mandir at Ayodhya and having a Uniform Civil Code are the basic BJP mantras, which they keep reviving from time to time. But this time round the BJP has nothing much to show on these three core issues despite having a majority in Lok Sabha.
In its manifesto, the Congress has, however, reaffirmed that it stands for preservation of Article 370 and 35 A, obviously in keeping with its viewpoint on Jammu and Kashmir.
The question which must be staring the BJP and Mr Modi in the face is “Will the common voter vote for the BJP candidate and party because the BJP fulfils his nationalistic aspirations and national security concerns, or will he be swayed by the promises made by the Congress to mitigate his present-day problems, like unemployment, debt poverty, price rise, health and housing?”
BJP strategists must be wary of the fact that innumerable personal and socio-economic issues can blunt the patriotic fervor of voters to a large extent, particularly when the country is at peace.
It was almost laughable to learn that roadside posters had been put up showing local politicians and Modiji with uniformed men to underline that the party was proud of the defence forces and their action, which was frowned upon by many. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is already in trouble for using the phrase “Modiji ki sena”.
Contending with the problems it faces with its pitch for nationalism and security, the BJP is also rubbishing the promises made in the Congress manifesto as a “bunch of lies” and hoping that the Indian electorate does not get carried away by it.
Whereas the Congress feels that the minimum income guarantee scheme NYAY (annual cash transfer of Rs 72,000 for the poorest 20 per cent households) will play a significant role in setting the narrative of the elections, the BJP has said the idea will burden citizens with higher taxes.
In view of farmers’ distress, the Congress manifesto, for the first time in Indian history, talks of a Kisan Budget, Right to Healthcare Act and amendment of Right to Education Act to provide free and compulsory education till Class 12 in government schools.
The Congress’s plan to hold “unconditional” talks with all stakeholders and review AFSPA is catering to a growing section of people who feel the BJP’s muscular approach to deal with a sensitive socio-political issue like Jammu and Kashmir may not be the right way in the long run. The Kashmir problem required an “innovative federal solution”, the Congress manifesto says.
In the days to come, the BJP is likely to drum up the Kashmir issue, particularly the Congress’ “soft approach” towards terrorists.
Mr Modi has already spoken vehemently against the whole concept of “Hindu terror”, pointing fingers at the Congress party for it.
While the BJP will keep the election narrative on nationalism and security, and the Congress will try to pull the narrative back to economic issues, it is interesting to take a relook at the BJP’s own promises in 2014.
On the job front, the BJP seems to have floundered badly, having promised during elections 2014 to give employment to 2 crore youths every year should a BJP government came to power.
Congressmen also do not tire of reminding voters that in 2014 the BJP had promised to bring back black money stashed abroad and fill Rs 15 lakh in each individual’s bank account.
The BJP had said it would control price rise, but petrol and diesel prices have sky-rocketed. On the bullet train, a pet project of Modiji, not much progress had been made in the past five years. The BJP manifesto had said the government was committed to 33 per cent reservation in Parliamentary and state Assemblies through a Constitutional amendment but that too is yet to become a reality.
One thing is certain though. This election is not going to be a cakewalk for the BJP. Doubts have crept in on the Modi-Shah duo’s invincibility after the fall in three Hindi heartland states late last year.