Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seat belts as we begin our roller coaster ride of election campaign of 2014. Abuses, counter abuses, tear-jerkers, mocking of tears, washing of dirty linen and display of spotless linen — are all on the agenda. As literary genius and former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said, “In politics, nothing is contemptible.”
Contemptible events and statements are being served hot on the table. From the Muzaffarnagar riots to the deplorable attempts to reap political dividends from them, politicians are projecting every thing as an election issue. I am waiting to see how a political twist is given to Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement. Not implausible. After all, he is a Member of Parliament.
Sitting next to a nurse from Kerala, I started chatting with her, asking her whether a certain dapper politician is likely to win in the 2014 polls. She asked me with endearing honesty, “Who is he? Karunakaran’s son?” And a few sentences later, “Can you write about one thing in your newspaper? We pay Rs 3,000 for a train ticket in an AC compartment for a 3-day journey from Delhi to Kerala, but the toilets are so dirty, we can’t use them. We have to get off at lonely train stations at night just to use the facilities.” This was her story. She of course had not heard of Narendra Modi’s ‘pehle shauchalaya phir devalaya’ statement. Nor is she concerned that he was a tea vendor in his youth. Her story is what it’s all about. The people’s story.
But what we are seeing are orchestrated crowds and speeches centered on lives of personalities. The election campaign for the forthcoming assembly elections and 2014 general election is being conducted like the presidential elections of America. The media is focused on the Modi versus Rahul jousts and their speeches are liberally peppered with personal anecdotes. This is a novel style and smacks of copying American political campaigning styles. It probably helps that many of the young guns around Modi and Rahul have either worked or studied in the US. They bring with them their starry eyed appreciation of the American way of doing politics. It doesn’t mean that it will result in less opaqueness in the functioning of the parties and more democracy. It is just that the packaging is personality oriented. This may not necessarily be a bad thing; it’s just an easier way of doing things. Increasingly, one finds it difficult to differentiate between the two leading political parties when it comes to their policies. Not many have the time to read voluminous political manifestoes and even if you skim through them, they essentially sound similar. So the quicker and painless way to differentiate between the parties is to look at their respective candidates.
The campaign managers of the two principal candidates (if we broadly agree that they are Modi and Rahul) therefore are investing a lot of time and energy to polishing up the cult status of their leaders. In both the BJP and the Congress, there is a general acceptance that this time a prime minister won’t appear out of nowhere. There is little scope of a black horse, like a Deve Gowda or Gujral happening.
In the 21st century, politics is more about leadership rather than ideologies and hence the two candidates have started talking about themselves rather than the people they are addressing. It is their story not your story that you have to focus on. Their caste, their religious beliefs, their childhood, their family, their fears, their dreams, their upset stomachs, their kurtas and their world view. The flip side is that it makes interesting TV. Gossipy stuff. Like leafing through a People Magazine or watching a Sooraj Barjatiya film.
It is possible that as we go closer into elections, their rallies might become smaller and the messages more focused on specific communities. Hopefully the demigod fawning of the two candidates will get watered down a bit. Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party’s campaign in Delhi has already reached that state. Anna was their hero but there is no cult worship visible anymore. Their candidates also don’t have the ‘taam-jhaam’ typical of other parties.
Meanwhile, it isn’t that the two principal candidates are not changing their messages. After every speech, their bevy of advisors are scouting the net and watching the media to see reactions. They are nervous and responsive. And that is a good thing. One of America’s Founding Fathers commented about people’s voice in a democracy, “When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty.”
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash