It's no way just BJP vs Congress as regional satraps dominate India’s political landscape

Written By: Ranjit Bhushan
Delhi, India Published: Apr 29, 2019, 11:33 AM(IST)

File photo. Photograph:( Zee News Network )

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There are powerful regional satraps, who dominate India’s political landscape in their own bailiwick, campaigning ceaselessly, against both Modi and occasionally, the Congress

When poll pundits call the ongoing general election presidential, they are missing the woods for the trees. It is one thing for shrill TV channels to split the screen and show PM Narendra Modi in one part and Rahul Gandhi in the other, it is quite another to start believing your own rhetoric and brand the poll presidential, as if two leading political behemoths are stalking the land.

The reality is far from it. The Indian election system is not presidential, constitutionally speaking, and that is the way it stands. The real battle for the hearts and minds of the voters is not just being fought between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, but a clutch of regional parties, that do not necessarily have the same high profile as the two national parties, but whose representatives are scouring the electoral landscape with the same vehemence as anyone else contesting the elections. 

In the big states, as is now apparent after three phases of elections, it is by no chance just BJP vs the Congress; remember India is a federal country and the elections, in a larger sense, represent a series of smaller polls - even downright local rivalries - that will determine the kind of government Indians can hope to see after May 23.

As a matter of fact, none of the big poll-bound states pit BJP vs the Congress. In Bengal, it is Trinamool and Mamata Banerjee vs the rest; in the biggest state of them all, Uttar Pradesh, it is mainly BJP vs two regional satraps, SP and the BSP. In Maharashtra, BJP-Sena are battling Congress and NCP while in Bihar, it is JD (U)-BJP against RJD and Congress from the outside. In Tamil Nadu, there is no BJP vs Congress fight, neither is there any Congress vs BJP standoff in Odisha, where again a regional outfit, Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has been calling the shots for the last decade-and-a-half. 

Neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are once again dominated by regional parties, the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) respectively. 

If there is a real Congress vs BJP poll battle, it remains confined to MP, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Assam and Gujarat. It is simply too small a base to call an Indian election presidential, given the size of the country. So where pray, is this magnificent, all-consuming presidential elections taking place? Not in India, to be sure.

There is another side to this. The risk of pitting Rahul against Modi is to conjure, farcically, of course, a highly unequal contest. Taken to its logical conclusion, it is a signal to the electorate that if Rahul cannot beat Modi, no one else can, while the reality is that a carefully calibrated opposition plan could have made the BJP’s well oiled electoral machine a little slower in its response time. That it may not happen now, is part of this problem of projecting an excessively presidential style of polling, when none actually exists on the ground.

Even though it can be said that Prime Minister Modi’s campaign style is typically presidential, overflowing with speeches, perhaps more than his own party or even the opposition. In true presidential fashion, the focus remains on the principal contender, who is larger than life, not just for the public, but also for the media.

Modi’s campaign style is excessively personal. There are barely any references to the BJP - in fact the punch line for election 2019 is ‘Phir ek baar Modi sarkar’ (Modi government again); in 2014, it was ‘Abki baar Modi sarkar’ (Modi government this time). Campaign Modi is, therefore, the end product of a complex web of back end outreach initiatives, nearly totally technology driven.   

With such an onerous comparison, Rahul Gandhi has had no option but to imitate a presidential style campaign and the jury is still out whether it suits him or not.  

However, that is where the comparison ends, because the Constitution of the country dictates the style of government and not the style of the practitioners. Perhaps, more clarity on it would come, once the poll results are known. 

Unlike a presidential campaign, there are powerful regional satraps, who dominate India’s political landscape in their own bailiwick, campaigning ceaselessly, against both Modi and occasionally, the Congress.

The BJP’s fight, as the final numbers will bear out, is going to be against the powerful regional satraps, and not the Congress, as is being incorrectly projected.  

A presidential election would necessarily mean high-velocity televised debates while in India, such arguments are the prerogative of television studios, where a number of low ranking leaders looking to make a mark, flex their muscles at each other, the higher the decibel level the better the entertainment. Direct polemics between leading political lights is not just uncommon, it is not even heard of. Speeches delivered are extempore at different locations and there is no question of anyone raising any point of order. Everyone on stage is a fellow traveller, so any dissension, as a form of political expression, simply does not exist.  

Politically speaking, when and if an alliance is cobbled, then the presidential aspect would not come into the picture. It would not be an alliance between two big parties, but two big political formations. Parties, with wide ideological divergences in the past, would suddenly deem it fit to form a government, once an alliance is put into place.  By May 23, India would undoubtedly be as far away from a presidential system as it ever has been. 

(This article was originally published on The DNA. Read the original article)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.) 


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