Indian electorate's understanding of national issues is very complex and it is very difficult to gauge the comprehension of voters. Their electoral behavior is sometimes determined by immediate interests, but at times it is also marked by a great sense of judgment. In some elections even the semiliterate and illiterate voters exercised their franchise with utmost caution and wisdom while in some elections their choice has left observers and even leaders baffled.
The charisma of Nehru was the single most important factor in the first three general elections in 1952, 1957 and 1962. The countrymen's undiluted love for him, aura of freedom struggle and one of the most progressive nation-building exercises ever undertaken, were uppermost in the voters' minds. It was Nehru with his unsurpassed credentials as a democrat, secularist, Fabian Socialist and architect of modern India held sway over the Indian electorate.
Indira Gandhi, with barely a year in office faced the fourth general election (1967). She was yet to emerge as the unquestioned leader of her party and opposition stalwarts too projected issues rather than themselves. There was no wave in favour of any party or formation. Perhaps this is the only election in which personalities mattered least. Leading a shaky Congress she was pitted against a host of stalwarts like Lohia, Minoo Masani, A.K.Gopalan, Vajpayee and above all Rajaji of the few surviving statesman and Nehru's contemporary who was bent on liquidating Congress hegemony. Despite such dotting the election scene personalities hardly mattered. A watershed election in many ways, the Congress bruised and battered, scraped through. It lost many key states with the loss in Madras (later Tamil Nadu) becoming a permanent feature. The discontent against the Central and state governments found clear expression in the verdict in several parts of the country.
The fifth general election in 1971 was an endorsement of Indira Gandhi's people oriented or populist as skeptics call; agenda. The slogan ‘garibi hatao' went down well with the masses and she romped home comfortably. Her personality counted most in this election. She appeared to have stood for all that is progressive and pro-poor. Far-reaching measures like nationalization of banks and abolition of privy purses and the trickle down of the fruits of green revolution gave a landslide to Indira's Congress. The opposition alliances could not even chip in her support base. Her craftiness and charisma brought her handsome victory and eventually it made her a cult figure.
The sixth general election in 1977 is the most decisive one so far. People did the unthinkable. The same Indira Gandhi who rode the wave of popularity and called as 'Durga' for her emphatic military victory against Pakistan a mere five and half years ago was squarely defeated even in Raibareli. The infamous emergency took a heavy toll of the Congress's seats as well as her credibility. The voters north of Vindhyas developed strong discountenance for the mother son duo which manifested in Janata's victory. In this election too Mrs Gandhi alone mattered; in fact more than what she was in 1971, but in a radically different manner. Then she was darling of masses; now a much discredited and detested autocrat. An event as cataclysmic as defeat of Congress was interpreted as triumph of democracy over dictatorship and Janata's win can be described as issue based rather than personality-centric. Jaiprakash Narain, the idealist who was disillusioned with her misrule and other systemic failures played a stellar role in galvanizing the masses to oust her. The country had great respect for the man, but more than that the issue raised by him sank into the public conscious. In 1980 the seventh and first premature election took place. She rode back to power on the slogan ‘a government that works'. The apparent misgovernance, continuous bickering among the various constituents of the Janata and rise of communal forces were the issues before the electorate and people's obvious choice was Mrs Gandhi.
The eighth general election was the most one sided one so far. The tragic assassination of Mrs Gandhi one and half months before the elections robbed the election of any worthwhile issue. The brewing discontent against her second innings petered out in the face of her assassination which was seen as some kind of martyrdom. Her quiet son Rajiv Gandhi with his clean image (by default) and disarming smile got an unprecedented mandate – a mandate that can never be surpassed. The nation mourned the death of its dear leader and one of the most powerful women ever and As an opposition leader lamented Indira Gandhi dead was more powerful and as in 1971 and 1977 she dominated the electoral arena, but from the skies. The ‘prince charming' got a whopping 404 seats dwarfing the records of his grandfather and mother.
The year 1989 saw the first election in which electronic media played a significant role. For the first time Doordarshan telecast election results round the clock and people saw TV debates on the results. The ninth election in a way was issue based as well as a clash between the impatient, forward looking, tech savvy and a trifle arrogant Rajiv Gandhi and reticent, contemplative, enigmatic Vishwanath Pratap Singh. The former started his tenure as a clean and enthusiastic heir of Nehru Gandhi legacy while the later already armed with the image of one of the cleanest politicians with a little dose of obstinacy was the first to challenge a Congress Prime Minsiter at national level. It was more of an ego clash which saw the exit of V.P.Singh from Rajiv's cabinet and his subsequent cooption into opposition politics proved disastrous for the Congress forever.
By 1988 Rajiv Gandhi's reputation was on downslide due to Bofors scandal whereas Mr Singh stood on a high moral ground and emerged as contender for the top post. Never before or after, did the entire non-Congress opposition project a single Prime Ministerial candidate against the Congress incumbent. Though not officially pronounced it was understood that a vote for BJP, Left, TDP, DMK, Akali Dal (Mann) and smaller parties that sailed with the National front was a vote for V.P.Singh. This was the first and perhaps the last clash of titans in Indian politics. Though anti-Congressism came to the fore after a gap of 12 years the election was bipolarized in terms of political parties as well as personalities.
Another premature election (tenth) was thrust on the nation following the fall of Chandra Sekhar's minority government in 1991 and in course of electioneering another tragedy struck the country in the form of ghastly assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. In his bid to stage a comeback he threw caution to wind and gave the lurking assassins a chance. The predominant issue after his death was stability and for the first time the Congress found itself in the thick of election without a member from Nehru Gandhi family. A new and sudden experience. This election paved way for coalition governments. The eleventh general election (1996) was fought on twin issues of economic reforms and communalization of society.
The Congress government under P.V.Narasimha Rao introduced economic reforms, thus attempting to integrate Indian economy with the global economy. The BJP and Hindutva forces aggressively pursued their sectarian ideology thus leading to the most undesirable kind of polarization. The remaining parties adhered to their respective ideologies with some opposing both the dominant parties and some clinging to BJP. Though Rao and Vajpayee were most visible leaders the regional satraps registered reasonable success. By this time caste also occupied considerable space and no party was in a position to discard it. Within one and half years the United Front government fell and Vajpayee became the most sought after leader with none to challenge him. Yet the election hardly appeared personality centred. In the 1999 election the pyrrhic Kargil victory gave Vajpayee an edge. Though the two successive elections were an endorsement of Vajpayee's leadership, his moderate achievements apart the polarization of society influenced the outcome most.
The thirteenth and fourteenth general elections (2004 and 2009) saw increasing acceptance of Sonia Gandhi's leadership and her ability to run coalition governments. In 2004 though Vajpayee was still the most popular leader some of the NDA partners fared badly telling on the prospects of the BJP. The impressive victory of the UPA in 2009 was a testimony to the success of inclusive and pro poor policies. Sonia Gandhi grew in stature and displayed remarkable sense of adjustment and accommodation. In these two elections personalities hardly surfaced.
Come 2014. A year before, much before the marathon began a sprinter is paraded as winner. The media blitzkrieg is at its ‘noisiest' best. A giant image is manufactured. The decibels of cry for one man are rising every day. For the first time a state Chief Minister is catapulted to such a position that even the post of Prime Minister may seem very ordinary. Corporate world, forces with Brahmanical orientation, Hindutva votaries, young netizens who are glued to their lap tops, vocal supporters of honour killings, minority baiters, anti-reservationists, conscience keepers of patriarchy and feudal order, retailers and hoarders and above all the chirpy NRIs have already got Narendra Modi sworn in as their PM. Never before a right winger among the right wing forces, had acquired so much respectability. Is all this adulation for him because of his administrative acumen? Or is it due to something much deeper, incomprehensible and invisible? The post global Indians are increasingly getting reconciled to the idea that salesmanship is preferable to statesmanship and he/she who projects as a doer, no matter how dubious the methods are, is seen as their savior. A cadre based party like the BJP which loathes personality cult is indulging in promoting the same.
The fact that Manmohan Singh-never an archetypal politician- hardly matches the aggression of the Pracharak turned Chief Minister turned Prime Minister in waiting, is indisputable. Rahul Gandhi is yet to be declared as Prime Ministerial candidate. Yet assuming that he would be, the Sangh Parivar threw Modi into the ring and he is punching the air. In an imagined context Modi seems to have an edge over his imagined rival. Recently a TV channel (English) conducted a youth survey in which 34 per cent of the respondents said Gujarat is the best governed state. It is not known whether at least a tenth of them had visited Gujarat. Do these young ‘Modians' know that Kerala and Tamil Nadu are way ahead of Gujarat in all aspects of human development? Pitiably these netizens do not seem to know that Ahmedabad is nowhere near Hyderabad, Bangalore and Pune when it comes to IT. Maharastra a much bigger state has better road connectivity and Naveen Patnaik and Tarun Gogoi too won thrice without uttering a word of hatred. If gifting land to MNCs is to be appreciated then many Dictators of Sub Saharan Africa also should get our pat for having allowed the MNCs to grab their resources including land. Devolution of powers in Gujarat is anything but impressive. Social scientists have started analyzing Modi's traits and psychoanalysts are researching into his gestures and words. Does he deserve this much attention? There could be hundreds of demagogues like him among the RSS cadres. His simplistic solutions, catchy punch lines, carefully chosen attire, arrogant pronouncements, aggressive postures, etc reveal his inner personality. He is certainly capable of manipulation, rabble rousing and self-aggrandizement.
Projected as the messiah of Hindus since the Gujarat pogrom, he seems to be comfortable with the accusation that he has blood on his hands and there is a streak of Fascism in him. Before him there were scores of Chief Ministers like Biju Patnaik, B.C.Roy, Kamaraj, A.K.Gopalan, Y.B.Chavan, H.N.Bahuguna, Jyoti Basu who were sagacious, harbingers of development in their respective states , sufficiently educated and enlightened and above all wedded to secular and democratic ideals. They were also humble! Unfortunately many of them were in the Congress and hence their question of becoming Prime Minister never arose. For those in opposition the opportunity never came. Does demonstration of administrative skills in a medium sized and already developed state- and that too in an autocratic manner-makes one eligible for the top job in a country which is diverse and embraced syncretism? Gujarat is a conservative and wealthy state where dissent and resistance have little or no value and creation of wealth precedes every other pursuit; be it literary pursuits or progressive social movements. Therefore Modi with his mix of neo-liberalism and sectarian politics is most suitable for ruling the state.
Personalities do matter in our elections. But we need people who have a progressive, liberal and all inclusive agenda.
Our democracy has survived many a challenge and with deviations and aberrations here and there our political class has not subverted democracy totally.
Our constitution-the greatest document ever produced-has kept our democracy vibrant and I do not know whether Modi and Modians respect it.
By Nelambroy (Chicago - USA)