The quality of India’s general election campaigning, which ends on Saturday, has deteriorated into a slanging match between rival politicians.
It began weeks ago as a relatively constructive debate between the growth policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi, and the sops and entitlement approach of the Congress Party espoused by Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia.
This rapidly became an almost presidential tussle between Modi and Rahul, with Modi in particular dominating his party’s campaign. Now the electioneering has now sunk into a noisy battle primarily between Modi and both Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul’s gutsy sister, and regional party leaders.
At the same time, politicians have diverted from the growth debate and have been chasing vote banks on the traditional issues of caste and religion as they struggle for their national goals – Modi to win the BJP a big enough majority to ensure he becomes prime minister, and the Gandhis to avoid a crushing Congress defeat that could endanger the future of their dynasty.
The first indications of the results will begin to be known May 13, when findings of exit polls are broadcast. This will be followed by the official vote count two days later when the fate of the extraordinary Modi offensive will be known, maybe as early as Thursday afternoon.
Modi’s supporters see him restoring India’s growth with a new dynamic and assertive central government, while his detractors fear the end of independent India’s gradualist, tolerant and protective policies associated in people’s minds by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
Modi has made few attempts on the hustings to soften his abrasive and controversial image, which stems from his presiding in Gujarat as its chief minister during the Godhra riots in 2002. In the past week or so, he has attacked political leaders who did not need to be attacked, including Mamata Banerjee, the West Bengal chief minister whose support he might need to form a coalition government at the end of next week.
He has however shown a calmer more prime ministerial style in a carefully crafted series of interviews in newspapers and on television programs where has shown he has thought through major policy areas. He has also tried to rebut claims that he is not a team player by talking about how he has delegated authority to officials and ministers in Gujarat.
The candidate covered a range of policies in a two-page question-and-answer session spread over two pages of the Times of India two days ago. These included a foreign policy that was not confrontational with India’s neighbors and others, a revived agricultural sector, reformed defense equipment procurement procedures, and a new focus on infrastructure construction and manufacturing industries.
Alongside this, Modi has fought a high decibel battle of sound-bites with Priyanka Gandhi which has opened up questions about the future of the dynasty should Congress do seriously badly and win fewer than 100 seats in the new Lok Sabha. The row has centred on Gandhi criticising Modi for “neech rajniti” or low-level politics, which he intentionally misinterpreted as a Nehru-Gandhi comment on his lower-caste background. Priyanka then invoked the memory of her assassinated father, Rajiv Gandhi, declaring angrily that she was his daughter after Modi teasingly suggested she was like a daughter.
The behavior of these two on the election trail suggests, according to reports, a continuation of the family’s feeling that it has a right to rule, behaving as patrons rather than politicians desperate for votes. Priyanka, who is famed for being more approachable and friendly than her brother, displays the same airs mirroring, it is often said, the style of her grandmother Indira Gandhi.
Tired of reporting the campaigns of Rahul Gandhi and their mother, Sonia, the media focused on Priyanka’s fighting talk and, having created hype around what she was saying, wondered whether this was eclipsing her brother’s campaign.
If that was supposed to suggest rivalry between the two, it seemed to be the wrong interpretation when the two appeared together earlier this week in Rahul’s Uttar Pradesh constituency of Amethi. Rahul’s popularity has been fading because he has largely ignored the place during ten years as the local MP and it is likely that, though he will probably win, his majority will be far smaller than in 2009.
So has Priyanka’s high profile in the last week or so been an intentional publicity stunt, or merely the inevitable result of a confrontational election? As usual with the dynasty, only the inner circle knows, but it certainly did no harm to the family which next week might have to come to terms with a crushing Congress defeat that underlines Rahul Gandhi’s limited appeal.
If opinion inside Congress then swings against Rahul at a time when his mother’s health is far from good, supporters can now point to the support than a capable Priyanka can give – and point to the picture above to argue that they would make a great team to carry the Nehru-Gandhis into the next general election.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, can also be found at the lower right corner of the page.