Listlessness marked first phase of India’s parliamentary elections

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By P.K.Balachandran/Daily News

Colombo, April 23: A total of 102 constituencies in 21 States voted on April 19 in the first phase of the seven-phase election to the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of India’s parliament which has 543 seats.

The Indian elections are the world’s and indeed history’s largest  democratic exercise, with 969 million registered voters casting their votes through 5.5 million Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) over 44 days. The eagerly awaited results will be announced on June 4.

In the first phase, the following to the polls: All the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu; 12 of the 25 seats in Rajasthan; eight of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh; 6 of the 29 seats in Madhya Pradesh; 5 of the 48 seats in Maharashtra; all five seats in Uttarakhand; 5 of the 14 seats in Assam; 4 of the 40 seats in Bihar; 3 of the 42 seats in West Bengal; both seats in Arunachal Pradesh; both seats in Manipur; both seats in Meghalaya; one of the 11 seats in Chhattisgarh; the lone seat in Nagaland; the lone seat in Sikkim; one of the two seats in Tripura; one of the five seats in Jammu and Kashmir; the lone seat in Andaman and Nicobar Islands; the loan seat in Lakshadweep and the lone seat in Puducherry.

Among the key constituencies that went to the polls were: Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, where the Bharatiya Janata Party’s high profile State President K.Annamalai was contesting. Through him, the BJP is trying to get a foothold in Tami Nadu, a State that had stubbornly rejected the Hindu nationalistic politics on the BJP. Nagpur, in Maharashtra saw the Indian Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari in the contest. The mild-mannered and consensus seeking Gadkari is talked of as a possible successor to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Manipur saw prolonged unprecedented ethnic violence between the dominant Hindu Meitei community and the Christian Kuki community, which claimed more than 200 people lives in May 2023. Much violence was seen during the polling.

Currently, the BJP rules in the States of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Assam, Manipur, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh. The BJP is in power through alliances in Maharashtra, Bihar, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Sikkim and Puducherry. West Bengal is governed by the All India Trinamool Congress Party, a part of the INDIA alliance. The Zoram People’s Movement governs Mizoram. Tamil Nadu is governed by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

In the last Lok Sabha elections in 2019, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won 45 of the 102 seats up for grabs now. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won 42.

No Wave

According to leading poll watchers, there was no wave for any party or alliance on April 19 in contrast to 2019 when there was a wave in favour of the BJP following a major Pakistan-inspired terrorist attack in Kashmir and India’s retaliatory airstrike against Pakistan. The BJP naturally swept the polls.

In the run up to the April 19 voting, there was no emotive issue other than Prime Minister Modi’s allegation that the Congress manifesto was the manifesto of the Muslim League which brought about the partition of India in 1947. Normal issues like livelihood, unemployment, high inflation, caste grievances were in the forefront. With these issues playing in the minds of the voters, the BJP government was getting flak. And without the trigger of an emotive issue like a terror attack, the voting percentage was lower than in 2019.

In Rajasthan, the voting percentage was 57.65%. In Tamil Nadu it was 69%, though in the 2019 elections it had been marginally higher at 72.47%.      

While the BJP highlighted its achievements, the opposition pointed to the palpable erosion of democracy under BJP rule and the alleged scheme to change the secular Indian constitution to a “Hindu Rashtra”. The BJP’s failure to provide employment and control prices  was also highlighted.  

In the Hindi-speaking States, all ruled by BJP, (in Bihar, as an ally), the BJP was banking on the Rama Temple issue, hoping to cash in on the consecration of the idol of Rama held earlier this year. However, the issue appeared to have significantly faded from the minds of the electorate, according to reports.

On the contrary, unemployment and price rise loomed large on the electoral horizon, as indicated by the CSDS-Lokniti pre-poll survey. The BJP’s manifesto was singularly lacking in achievements on these fronts or even on promises for the future, commentators said.

Another major issue at play was the farmers’ plight. While the year-long struggle of farmers in 2020-21 forced the BJP government at the Centre to withdraw the controversial three agriculture-related laws, the demand for guaranteed Minimum Support Price (MSP) at 50% more than the total cost as well as more procurement by government agencies, had remained unfulfilled.

The dream of ‘Viksit Bharat’ (Developed India) riding on the nice looking statistics showing high GDP growth and good stock market performance could not hide the harsh realities on the ground, which were unemployment and high prices.

BJP supporters claimed that even with limited polling, their confirmed supporters would have voted for the party. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote on X: “First phase, great response. Thank you to all those who have voted today. Getting excellent feedback from today’s voting. It is clear that people across India are voting NDA in record numbers.”

But opposition supporters said that the higher percentage of voting in 2019 was only because of the terrorist attack in Pulwama and the airstrike by the Indian forces on Balakot, and that in normal circumstances, people would consider livelihood issues and vote for the opposition in view of high employment and inflation. Therefore, they felt that the voters would have voted for the opposition.

The general consensus in the media other than the big corporate media, is that the Congress-led coalition called INDIA was far ahead of BJP, performing strongly in Tamil Nadu and creditably in BJP-fortresses such as Maharashtra, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.

The fact that the Prime Minister started giving media interviews incessantly in contrast to his earlier dismissive attitude towards media interviews and press conferences, and the tone of his answers indicated that the going was tough.  

⁠The rhetoric about getting 400 plus seats to change the constitution’s secular and federal character had backfired and the BJP was on a denial mode, observers said.  

It is not clear if the voters at the grassroots level had an understanding of the controversial Electoral Bonds issue that is  dubbed by the opposition as a big scam. But what was palpable was  a general disquiet. The BJP’s narrative that it had lifted millions out of poverty through cash transfers did not ring true considering that unemployment and inflation were the most worrying things in the minds of the voters according to the highly respected Lokniti-CSDS per-poll survey.

All parties were plagued by factionalism and leaders and members crossing over to rival parties. In the Wayanad constituency in Kerala, from which Congress leader Rahul Gandhi would be contesting, the District Congress Committee General Secretary P.M.Sudhakaran resigned from the party and joined the BJP.

“If he is inaccessible to me, imagine the situation of a common man. He was given five years. If we give another term, it will destroy the development prospects of Wayanad,” Sudhakaran said.

In Uttar Pradesh, Varun Gandhi, a prominent BJP leader was denied the ticket to contest from Pilibhit and he is said to have quit the party. His mother Maneka Gandhi who is contesting from Sultanpur in Uttar Pradesh as the BJP candidate said that she would not use religion, caste or religion to get votes. This is interesting since the BJP exploits religion as a matter of policy. Maneka Gandhi probably feels that BJP type of communal politics may not serve her well in the future.     


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