What the 2019 poll campaigns tell us about Indian democracy

With the general election results due on May 23, now is the best time to look back at the nature of the campaign, especially of the two major parties, and what it tells us about the state of Indian democracy.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was clearly ahead in the campaign game. It has a robust organisation which it mobilised from last year; it had the maximum resources and thus was able to command the most visibility; it had the ability to market its government schemes down to the level of beneficiaries using the party machine; and it had the biggest brand in Narendra Modi. This combination of leadership, resources and ground-level strength gave the BJP the edge. Yet, there were some extremely disturbing elements in the party’s campaign. From giving a ticket to a terror accused to the PM and party president Amit Shah quite openly practising divisive politics, the BJP also sought to appeal to raw emotions and distracted people from real issues.

The Congress had the advantage of being the opposition, and it is always easier to attack the incumbent. Rahul Gandhi did run an aggressive campaign and came across as more focused than in the past. But the party had two problems. Its consistent effort to pitch Rafale as evidence of the PM’s wrongdoing did not work on the ground, and corruption did not become an issue against the government. Its promise of Nyay had potential, but there was both a crisis of communication since the announcement was made too late and a crisis of credibility since many voters did not seem to believe the Congress based on its track record. The regional parties ran a campaign that combined both sub-nationalism (Mamata Banerjee) and caste arithmetic (Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh). All of this made the elections a contest between leadership, institutions, issues, but also threw up learnings on what parties must avoid next time around to make democracy more meaningful.

First Published:
May 20, 2019 19:40 IST

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