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Mainstream, VOL LV No 45 New Delhi October 28, 2017

Is the BJP planning a Surprise Election?

Monday 30 October 2017

by Mahendra Ved

Is Prime Minister Narendra Modi contemplating a surprise general election, say, early next year, ahead of the May 2019 schedule?

Does he want to take advantage of the present situation wherein, going by political indicators, no party or personality is in a position to challenge him politically or electorally?

Does he want to act before a bad economic situation could get worse in the next few months?

Speculation is rife since his government responded with alacrity to the Election Commission granting Rs 164 billion to meet the estimated additional expenditure to acquire additional electronic voting machines (EVMs) and other paraphernalia.

Along with funds, the polls body, a constitutional authority, expressed its readiness to hold simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and to the State legislatures by the second half of next year.

Strangely, while the request for funds has been noted as something routine, the government’s quick response to it does not seem to have registered with the political class. It is tied up discussing the pros and cons of simultaneous elections as that would mean cutting short the tenures of most legislatures.

If Modi does it, he would be, willy-nilly, emulating late Indira Gandhi who surprised the nation and her political opponents in 1970. The polls in March 1971 saw her trounce the Opposition’s “grand alliance”, as also the challengers within her Congress Party that she had split earlier in 1969.

Many of Modi’s critics and analysts like Prof RamachandraGuha have compared Modi’s aggressive tactics to those of Indira.

Another compelling reason for Modi to advance his polls time-table has something to do with his relationship with his mentors/ controllers in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It chose the candidates for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. An overwhelming majority of BJP lawmakers he leads belong to the RSS to which he himself belongs. Modi would like to have a free hand in selection of candidates in a future election.

This he can do principally with the help of Amit Shah, now into his second term as the BJP chief. Going by the party’s track record, even Atal Behari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani stepped down after two terms. Thus, Shah getting a third term, beyond July 2018, seems unlikely. Holding simultaneous elections was mooted some years ago by Advani. The BJP wants it, ostensibly since it sees an advantage, going by Shah’s hyper-campaign to conquer, as it were, the whole nation. Other parties have yet to open their cards on this issue but will be compelled to play by the ear if they want to stay in the game and stem the BJP onslaught. Confronted by the government’s preference for simultaneous polls, the Election Commission, expressing readiness by the third quarter of 2018, has tossed the ball back into the government’s court.

It is now for the latter to consult the political parties and other stakeholders and evolve a consensus on this ticklish issue. For, unless the party/alliance in power is cock-sure of its re-election, it would not want to cut short its tenure. Past records caution against such a gamble.

There is no denying that it costs a lot to hold elections, single or multiple, in the world’s most populous democracy. Simultaneous elections would certainly save cost and effort. They allow for a measure of ‘normalcy’, since the country witnesses a string of elections each year.

The Union Government gets selective towards States that are due for the polls, even shifting policies and goals and makes promises. The parties are perennially in the poll mode and scrounging for funds to contest them. Indian democracy has become one that moves from election to election.

It remains to be seen whether such a consensus can/will be evolved and if yes, how the country will witness the next polls in one or more phases. The idea is a potent one, even if it is not adopted in the near future. But to be sure, a snap poll next year would put it on the backburner.

Anyway, the country is already in election mode. Besides politics, it also impacts the economy. A.M. Naik, the chief honcho of Larsen & Toubro, the infrastructure giant, was spot on when he said last week that the government was already preoccupied with elections and the economy will take the back seat for the next two years.

The question is whether Modi can afford such a priority. The economy is slowing down. Its demonetisation of last November can be defended or deprecated and debated—either way—to score brownie points. But that has not lessened the burden on the suffering public and reduced the misgivings. Similarly, the much-delayed Goods and Services Tax (GST), howsoever desirable, has also impacted adversely in its immediate aftermath.

The government has failed to generate jobs, the promise of which had seduced the youth and the middle classes in 2014. As a result, Modi’s personal popularity may have sustained—some call it the TINA (there is no alternative) factor—but his prolonged period of honeymoon has definitely ended.

Along with the economy, Modi must contend with the social turmoil caused by the majoritarian agenda pursued by his party and its affiliates. It has alarmed many at home and abroad.

His deafening silence on this is punctuated by occasional, broad-based, assurance to the people. And since the two are couched in denunciation of anything and anybody critical, it has added to the confusion. The aggression in public and the troll on the social media have disappointed many even among his admirers and supporters.

Political rumblings are discernible. The likely elevation next month of Rahul Gandhi as the chief of the Congress and re-election of AkhileshYadav as the Samajwadi Party chief herald young leaders in a polity used to the old guard perpetuating itself. It is not that the two will instantly set the Ganga on fire—their alliance actually flopped in the Uttar Pradesh elections—but being young, they have a long way before them. Hoping they would rectify their past errors, and organise their respective parties, they should be able to strengthen, for now, the Opposition that a democracy must have in adequate strength.

Subjected to constant troll each time he opens his mouth or writes on the social media, Rahul seems to have opened his account, even if far away from home, in the United States. He came across as thoughtful, more coherent than he is at home, and even candid, admitting his party’s loss of mass contact.

He could not have defended himself on the much-talked ‘dynasty’ issue that is hurled at him. But he widened the ambit indicating that he is as much a product of the system, as good or as bad as other dynasts are. Of course, the unstated admission was that the Congress cannot do without the Gandhi family.

One saw a glimpse of his father, but being good and well-meaning is not enough. He no longer comes across as reticent and fumbling for words. But he still has some way to go.

The way eight Union Ministers and 11 Ministers of State pounced upon each word he uttered is an indication that he had stung the BJP. Its aggression and shrillness have exposed the chinks in its armour.

Reports are that Rahul plans similar visits to Russia and China where he hopes to be at least listened to and reasoned with, unlike at home. What has for nearly four years been a one-sided discourse has the potential of being somewhat competitive.

The author, a columnist for The New Strait Times (Malaysia), is the President, Commonwealth Journalists Association (CIA).

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