Each election is special in its own way, but that of 2019 promises to go beyond special. It might prove to be the most defining in the history of independent India.
No, it is not going to be about Narendra Modi. No doubt, the entire campaign will revolve around him. He will be the main talking point for his party and the opposition. Some might call the election a referendum on him. However, that would be missing the woods for the trees.
He is just a bit player in a much bigger game. His presence in the spotlight is incidental, not central, to the wider battle involving conflicting narratives of India: the Nehruvian narrative and that of the RSS. The conflict goes back several decades and the former had the upper hand till a few years ago. In the years since 2014, the playing field has become more equal. The massive electoral victory for the BJP was in some ways a validation of the Right ideology, which the RSS and the Hindutva groups loosely linked to it are identified with.
The ideology has chosen Modi as the leader, just as it had chosen Atal Bihari Vajpayee. We can hark back to the mask debate during the latter’s time. The ideology will keep finding new masks till it does not need them anymore. If it is Modi now, it can be someone else tomorrow. Thus, the central character in the Right wing political-ideological theme is not any leader in particular.
The elections of 2019 will be about ideology – the liberal, secular, inclusive and Left-leaning ideology of the Constitution makers vs. conservative, religion-centric, exclusive, muscular and populist ideology of the Right. Unlike in all elections earlier, this will be a direct fight.
In the previous election, the Right made development its major campaign plank. The issue of corruption was a force-multiplied. Hindutva played its polarising part on the ground but the leaders scrupulously avoided being looked at as overtly communal. This time round, development will take a backseat. The government has no major achievement to speak of. The economy looks as gloomy as it was five years ago, if not worse. The unemployment scenario is as bad.
Corruption cases have started surfacing. The CBI affairs have exposed the good governance claim of the ruling dispensation. Against all this, Modi’s oratorical brilliance is not going to be of much help. After a full term in power, his party cannot keep shifting the blame on past governments either. This means that the Hindutva agenda will play out in full force. It won’t surprise anyone if the government, prodded by the Sangh, does
something drastic on the Ayodhya Ram Temple before the elections. The demand has started surfacing and there’s even talk of bypassing the Supreme Court through an ordinance. Street action is likely to follow soon.
A repeat victory needs a massive push. Votes have to get polarised, not only communally but also in the secular space. It promises to be a defining election because if polarisation succeeds, then a new template of the polity will supplant the old. A victory for the Hindutva agenda would mean embracing its ideology with all its ramifications, good, bad and ugly. It would also mean a drastic reconfiguration of the idea of India. The diverse country might enter into a phase of homogenisation in social and cultural spheres. The ideas of liberty, rights and free expression may be subjected to scrutiny and revision. If it fails, it won’t be closure for the battle of ideologies. We might see a strong backlash from the winner and fight back from the loser. The scenario unfolding afterwards, promises to be nasty and turbulent. The country appears headed for difficult times.