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Lok Sabha polls: Narendra Modi's Varanasi roadshow frenzy, symbolism-loaded filing of nomination, indicate BJP remains party to beat

There have been debates in media on why Congress backed out at the last minute from fielding Priyanka Gandhi Vadra against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi after such a song and dance. The reason is not hard to understand. The newest Gandhi scion on the block may have talked up her willingness to take on the prime minister in his Lok Sabha constituency but a reality check would have told the Congress that a bruising defeat was the most likely possibility.

Poll bravado notwithstanding, Congress didn’t consider it prudent to risk a Gandhi being battered at the electoral hustings against Modi in a seat where it was on the margins. It makes sense too. The First Family’s image would have taken a beating and Congress’ morale would have been affected. Fielding Ajay Rai from Varanasi, who came third in 2014 behind Arvind Kejriwal, is the party attempting to cut its losses.

 Lok Sabha polls: Narendra Modis Varanasi roadshow frenzy, symbolism-loaded filing of nomination, indicate BJP remains party to beat

Narendra Modi hands his papers to the Varanasi District Magistrate on Friday. ANI

The spectacle of a grand ‘Modi roadshow’ in Varanasi on Thursday followed by the prime minister’s Ganga aarti at the Dashashwamedh ghat juxtaposed with Congress chickening out at the last minute on Priyanka. The contrast couldn’t have been starker. On a day BJP coloured the temple town saffron and Modi was mobbed in Varanasi, the Congress appeared at a loss and on the verge of throwing in the towel. Modi told Varanasi that he will be back to “thank everyone” after the results are out.

At the halfway stage of 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when polling in 303 out of 543 seats have been completed across 20 states and Union Territories, BJP’s show of strength in Varanasi via a spectacular roadshow on Thursday and Modi’s symbolism-loaded filing of nomination on Friday sent the message that the saffron party is confident about its chances. On the other hand, before polling commences in the next four phases, including BJP strongholds in the Hindi heartland, the Opposition appears a fractured, splintered, bickering bunch. Its components are too busy fighting among themselves to offer a united front. The Opposition’s chaos serves to only highlight the order that NDA has showcased.

Modi’s Varanasi roadshow on Thursday — which surpassed the 2014 roadshow in scale and grandeur — served to highlight a few trends that are becoming evident. It would be foolish to assume that not a huge amount of preparation had gone into the programme, but the spontaneity and enthusiasm from common people that was on display, and the way the prime minister was greeted, point to Modi’s deep connect with the masses. It wouldn’t be out of place to argue that Opposition and political analysts have, so far, been unable to understand the true nature of this phenomenon.

In a number of recent interviews, BJP president Amit Shah has been at pains to claim that analysts are overestimating the impact of SP-BSP alliance. Pollsters, analysts and the Opposition have claimed that the BJP — which won 73 Lok Sabha seats in UP with 43.6% vote share (with ally Apna Dal) — will see its seats getting chopped to the region of 35-37 seats unless it may hike up its vote share to the 50 percent mark, which by all accounts is projected as an impossibility.

Shah’s contention is that this analysis is outdated, because the leaders (read Mayawati or Akhilesh Yadav) who draw strength from caste divisions and are allying in hope to consolidate their respective bases against the BJP, are no longer the custodian of their bases. Shah’s logic is that five years of Modi rule and the work that he has done has turned voters into independent agents who have seen the difference on the ground, have developed their own agency and no longer follow the diktat of their caste leaders.

In an interview with Indian Express, the BJP president was quoted as saying, “The UP analysis being done by the media is based on politics from 10 years ago when voters were virtually tied with leaders as vote banks… The situation has completely changed in UP and the country. In fact, voters are no more hostage to their leaders. Voters are taking their own decisions… Even today, I am confident we will maintain our 73 seats and can go up beyond 74.”

It is tempting to dismiss Shah’s comments as poll rhetoric, but the absolute frenzy that was display as Modi’s cavalcade made its way through the lanes and bylanes of the temple town over a six-kilometre span indicate that Shah may have caught on to something. Acknowledging BJP’s ability to organise such events on grand scale, and taking into account the possibility that a large number of the teeming crowd that lined up the streets, balconies, terraces and every possible nook and corner to get a glimpse of Modi could be BJP workers, it is a stretch to think that the entire crowd was organised by the party.

The second trend became evident when Modi appeared in Varanasi to file his nomination papers. The BJP gave a veritable lesson to its political rivals on how every incident can be turned into a poll campaign and a message may be sent home. Modi’s filing of nomination saw key BJP leaders being present: Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari, Sushma Swaraj, Himanta Biswa Sarma, among others. The message went loud and clear that Modi’s primacy in the party as the prime ministerial candidate is absolute, and there cannot remain even a murmur of dissent. Gadkari’s presence was significant because Congress president Rahul Gandhi has attempted to encourage a coup within BJP with Gadkari at the centre. A section of media has enthusiastically played along.

The presence of all NDA allies during Modi’s filing of nomination, including Shiv Sena chief Udhhav Thackeray, Akali Dal patriarch Parkash Singh Badal, AIADMK coordinator O Panneerselvam, Nagaland Chief Minister and the national convener of NDPP Niphieu Rio, was no less significant. The BJP was putting forward a visual of unity among NDA constituents to be aired into millions of homes.

It was a deliberate move to show the unity and stability that a BJP-led NDA government may offer in contrast with the bickering bunch where Akhilesh Yadav is taking potshots at Rahul Gandhi, Congress president is blaming Arvind Kejriwal while the AAP chief, in turn, is accusing Rahul of acting as a BJP agent. Every little symbolism counts in a campaign and it went to show how Opposition has no answer to BJP’s well-coordinated strategy.

Two more developments were worth noting. Before filing his nomination, Mod addresses BJP cadres and workers in a meet where he urged them to go and “win every booth”. He warned the BJP workers against becoming complacent and asked them to ensure that all polling records are broken. This shows two things. One, the BJP has taken lessons from the 2004 debacle when the party suffered from complacency over its performance. Two, the Modi-Shah duo keeps nothing to chance and attempts to tick every conceivable box.

The second development worth noting was Modi’s gesture to touch the feet of Parkash Singh Badal, the Akali Dal patriarch. Akali Dal’s stock might be down in Punjab at the moment, but through the gesture, Modi was showing respect to an elder, humility to an ally, attaching a value to the partnership and sending a message that the alliance will remain intact despite the downturn in Akali Dal’s fortunes. This sends a reassuring message to allies that the BJP, despite being the single-largest party among NDA, is keen to maintain relationship with alliance partners. This is an important lesson in coalition politics, more so because the BJP has been erroneously accused of being arrogant in the past.

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Updated Date: Apr 26, 2019 19:59:44 IST