There are two Hindi words that had become akin to cuss words in the Indian political lexicon, getting more charged up by the day for the general elections in the world’s largest democracy now just a month away. One is ‘chor’ (thief) and the other is ‘chowkidar’ (watchman). It began with Prime Minister Narendra Modi describing his role as a ‘chowkidar’ who is ever vigilant of the nation’s well-being and territorial integrity, which he alleged was subverted and compromised by the previous Congress-led UPA government. He was promptly challenged by his political rival, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who said Modi, who claimed to be a watchman of the country’s interests, had only “turned out to be a ‘chowkidar’ of his industrialist friends”. Later, as the Rafale jet-fighter deal with France got embroiled in murky political waters and the Congress accused Modi of paying inflated prices for the aircraft to favour industrialist Anil Ambani, Gandhi coined the pejorative slogan ‘chowkidar’ chor hai" (the watchman is a thief). Modi hit back in Parliament, saying it was akin to a thief reprimanding the police officer.
Political sentiments however dramatically turned in Modi's favour post the Pulwama terror assault, followed by the air strikes against "terror targets" inside Pakistan, amid an upsurge in nationalist feelings and patriotic fervour among the people. Many of the old slogans and accusations against Modi, who credited his government with taking the "big and strong decisions", were upended even as Modi accused the Congress of undermining the country's military preparedness with their anti-Rafale rhetoric and said the Indian Air Force was "feeling the absence" of Rafale due to the "politics over Rafale".
With a lot at stake and invectives flying both ways in what is likely to be a no-holds-barred 17th general election from April 11 to May 23, the Indian voter, and the India watcher, is likely be treated to some rivetting, and some unsavoury, political theatre in the coming weeks. Despite India being seen as the fastest growing major economy in the world, the lack of jobs - Modi promised ten million new jobs a year - the continuing agricultural distress affecting almost 60 per cent of the country's population and the calculated subversion of India’s religious plurality by marginalising Muslims is going to make this election a major test for what is called the future ‘idea of India’.
The ruling BJP, while paying lip service to the country’s composite culture and secular constitution, is making no bones to assert the primacy of the country’s Hindus, the religion of over 80 per cent of the 1.3 billion people, in its scheme of things. It is going out of its way to extend state patronage of Hindu religious festivals and making construction of the Ram temple at a site in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, whose ownership is disputed by Muslim groups, central to its majoritarian agenda on the ground that it involves "sentiment of Hindus" - at the expense of the sentiments of 185 million Muslims who comprise 14 per cent of the population. Historian Mahesh Rangarajan calls this part of the “remaking of India” and its “facets of life” and warns that “if the grammar of politics changes, it has implications for the fabric of India”. This objective is not totally denied by the ruling fraternity’s ideologues and policy executors.
In his insightful new book “Delusional Politics”, Hardeep Singh Puri, the housing and urban development minister in the Modi government, says that the ideological fault-lines between the conservative-right BJP and its left-liberal opponents runs much deeper and “symbolises a more profound and fundamental transition of ideas and ideals.” And underscores that “these are the very ideals that are now being implemented by Prime Minister Modi”.
If then the contest is philosophically for the very soul of India - as many have put it - why has it degenerated into a who-me-thief-you-thief debate? This is because Modi, who shook up Indian public opinion on a performance pledge to bring better days for his countrymen and free them from a perceptively corrupt and non-performing government, has himself become a victim of his demagoguery. His once persuasive rhetoric and developmental promises were sounding hollow to many with the government unable to convince the people that they are indeed experiencing a higher well-being index than of five years ago. And Modi’s penchant for bypassing the system to get things done in a hurry, overriding bureaucratic checks and balances - like he apparently did to get the Indian Air Force its badly needed Rafale jet fighters from France - almost threatens to become his government’s Bofors - a scandal-marred howitzer gun acquisition that cost the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi - father of Rahul Gandhi - his prime ministership in the elections of 1989.
But, in the wake of the terror outrage in Kashmir, Modi walked his talk of delivering a "befitting reply" to Pakistan after he had boldly declared that "those who supported it will definitely be punished". Even though the action was fraught with risks of escalation into a full-fledged war with Pakistan indulging in a calibrated military retaliation, both sides held their horses with many government critics even seeing the action as calculated to fetch the ruling BJP political dividends with elections announced soon after. The wind was knocked out of the sails of the Congress that had begun taunting the Prime Minister of making empty threats of teaching Pakistan a lesson. Many say that the Congress will have to now go back to the drawing board quickly to reframe its election campaign in the face of a BJP surge or tie up reluctant alliances with other parties in order to present a united challenge to the ruling party. The BJP, at its peak in 2014, got only 31 per cent of the electoral vote and yet won because of the splintering of the opposition votes. By all accounts it might be an election like no other in India’s 72-year democratic history and it is now up to a polarised electorate of nearly 900 million people - the world's largest - to decide which way this country ought to go.
(The author is President, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)