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In Lok Sabha election 2019, some shades of 1977, but sorry position of Congress, abstract promises by Modi symbolic of wider malaise

History speaks to the present in interesting, and although sometimes too muted, instructive ways. The general election of 2019 has been one such exercise in political history and passion. In 2018, the Indian National Congress (INC) was remarkably successful in Assembly elections in two significant states — Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. This created, or so it seemed, a moment of delicious ambivalence when it appeared that the 'Modi' juggernaut could, perhaps, at last, be halted.

Many months and several lessons hence, the juggernaut may lack all of the newnesses of 2014 and some of its vigour but is on its way; by most accounts, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holds an unambiguous advantage in the long-winded Lok Sabha election underway even as this is written. Narendra Modi, it is argued, has drawn and captivated considerably more attention than his principal adversary, Rahul Gandhi. It is argued, and quite rightly, that this attention cloaks insidious strands — that, to proffer elaboration, some of it has come by perfidious use of resources and institutions made beholden to the central government and much else by a vituperative and vitriolic campaign of helpless fear lodged in the mind of the unsuspecting voter.

 In Lok Sabha election 2019, some shades of 1977, but sorry position of Congress, abstract promises by Modi symbolic of wider malaise

The general elections of 1977 followed the end of Indira Gandhi's Emergency (1975-77) very closely; in fact and effect, the Emergency was ended with the release of prisoners of the political opposition towards the close of January, giving them barely two months until the general elections in March, 1977. AFP

Was the ambiguity squandered? Voter after voter interviewed in assorted publications attests to an earlier ambiguity stifled by the realisation that there is no alternative leader but Modi. To suggest otherwise, or, the horror, flirt with the name of Rahul Gandhi is an exercise in ridicule. There is, in fact, much operating beyond this putative binary — oppositional forces have been brewing and consolidating in Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress (TMC) in Bengal, the alliance between Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party (SP) and Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh, and Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi, to take but three examples. Conversation around a possible third, even a non-Congress, front emerging on 23 May is in the air and abuzz. Yet, the voter is convinced that the galaxy of leadership is exhausted at Modi. What has gone awry?

A possible parallel with the 1977 election, in the author's opinion, will not be misplaced. The idea of such a parallel was raised in this article, but not sufficiently explored; suffice to say, however, that the word 'parallel' must be used very carefully, for while the prescription that things remain the same the more they change holds some water,  in 2019 there is much in excess and much found wanting.

The general election of 1977 followed the end of Indira Gandhi's Emergency (1975-77) very closely; in fact and effect, the Emergency was ended with the release of prisoners of the political opposition towards the close of January, giving them barely two months until the general election in March, 1977.

In these difficult and tumultuous times, an instructive history of the polity in India was scripted. The hastily configured (there was no time to devise a new party, or, for that matter, a new election symbol) ham-handed ‘Janata Dal’ so made of the Congress (Organisation), the Bharatiya Lok Dal, the Samyukta Socialist Party, and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, among others, gathered as many as 298 parliamentary seats to Indira Gandhi's 189. Although there was much regional differentiation to this picture of a cataclysmic landslide – the Janata Dal found milder than the lukewarm response in the southern states — it is argued that the Opposition's collective foregrounding of civil liberty as a national problem upstaged the most domineering national party.

This marked the unprecedented victory of an alliance stitched together, to reiterate, in a vapidly precarious time when no personality contesting the election stood in the horizon of Indira Gandhi's political stature and social imaginary. This was a ‘dal’ cobbled together by utter helplessness, and a force that went on to appropriate that helplessness to speak to a despondent and helpless nation. It found, to its surprise, that the nation listened – and responded.

What, then, of us?

In the face of a dismal economic situation and rapidly depleting civil liberty, the Congress, as an oppositional force, has responded by crafting its lacklustre political rhetoric in the image of Modi as antagonist – very unsuccessfully by virtue of being impossible, as aforementioned – and colouring it with non-sequiturs like ‘Rafale’ which, thanks to the petulant tug-of-war between children of the two parties, has become a hollow pastel. AFP

In the face of a dismal economic situation and rapidly depleting civil liberty, the Congress, as an oppositional force, has responded by crafting its lacklustre political rhetoric in the image of Modi as antagonist – very unsuccessfully by virtue of being impossible, as aforementioned – and colouring it with non-sequiturs like ‘Rafale’ which, thanks to the petulant tug-of-war between children of the two parties, has become a hollow pastel. AFP

Five years ago, the BJP was voted to power by the miraculous force of Narendra Modi’s abstract promises. After five years and many spectacles, the government has only deeds that every government in India has historically done for its very survival — that is, securing its borders and security — to show for itself in elaborate rallies across the country. This is as misplaced as Rahul Gandhi asking to be consecrated for the war of 1971, and contrary to popular belief, the voter understands, especially when they are being fooled.

But Modi has not made his ruination of democratic institutions an official emergency and is consequently much more difficult to be framed as an antagonist than Mrs Gandhi was in 1977. What makes the parallel piquant, of course, is the sorry position of the Congress, arguably also responsible, as historian Gyan Prakash has tracked in his book deftly, for producing most problems of our wounded democracy. In the face of a dismal economic situation and rapidly depleting civil liberty, the Congress, as an oppositional force, has responded by crafting its lacklustre political rhetoric in the image of Modi as antagonist – very unsuccessfully by virtue of being impossible, as aforementioned – and colouring it with non-sequiturs like ‘Rafale’ which, thanks to the petulant tug-of-war between children of the two parties, has become a hollow pastel rather than, as it should have, something substantially symptomatic and symbolic of a wider malaise.

But most unfortunately, both Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi as officious figures of the bi-party national world so unlike 1977, have worked to denude the possibility of a third front staking any claim to political power. While the former has done so by pursuing possible figures of a possible assemblage in the relentless offence, the latter has done so by privileging ‘long-term stature’ over alliance. Rahul Gandhi, decries this piece: You had one job.

Perhaps, however, leaving the burden of a moribund opposition at Rahul's door is also what is most convenient. It allows us to leave ‘regional’ figures as ‘regional’ figures with no role in ‘national’ politics when, in fact, much could have been done, by the said figures, to short-change those equations. It allows us also to leave unasked critical questions of ourselves – what is a citizenry that votes only because it must and elect someone, anyone only because it must?

Has the BJP made us so or, more unsettlingly, were we always like this? We are helpless in 2019 and we were helpless in 1977 and in 1980 as the Janata Dal crumbled. These are deeply searching questions to ask of an electorate, but if the general election of 1977 teach us anything, it is to ask even when it is most difficult to.

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Updated Date: May 07, 2019 13:49:23 IST