At the most basic level, a successful election campaign is an amalgam of optimism, hope and trust. It derives its potency from the ability of the individual candidate or party or idea to convince voters that their lives, and those of their children, will be better, safer and more secure if the electorate makes certain choices.
As India approaches the 2009 general election, it finds itself unusually short of hope. The popular mood is sombre and marked by fear and insecurity. The comparison with previous elections is futile, but also natural. In 2004, it was so different. There was a gung-ho optimism, even cockiness, to public discourse – a sense that India had finally turned the corner, that the economy had begun to accelerate. The external environment seemed to have become more conducive to India'sambitions.
Even terrorism and Pakistan – India'seternal bugbears – seemed manageable. Terror attacks had not disappeared – let'sface it, they never can and never will – but there was political will to support and sustain internal policing efforts and thwart the enemy at the border.
All in all, middle India was probably more optimistic about its children'sfuture than any previous generation in Independent India'shistory.
Today, India is an ocean apart. Five years of fiscal profligacy and very limited economic reform have meant that the capital of the NDA years – of the massive infrastructure projects and investments fuelled by a low-interest regime, for instance – has been frittered. The economy has spiralled downwards without anybody in the UPA establishment being able to quite explain what is going on.
To some degree global economic conditions are responsible. Even so, many of India'seconomic woes are entirely home-grown – and courtesy a government that has spent its way into trouble.
Economic uncertainty has been matched by terror bombings, now almost a monthly affair. Internal security is a joke. For four years a lacklustre and clueless home minister dismantled India'sdefences, piece by piece, refusing to take his primary duty – safeguarding the citizens of India from threats originating within national boundaries – seriously.
India is angry and desperate to try a new road. It is hunkering in anxiety; it is also hungry for change. The winner in the coming election will be the party or formation that convinces the people that is the vehicle for change, for hope, for a new, better tomorrow. If neither the Congress nor the BJP can persuade the voters adequately, a stalemate will result – and give India an even more horrifically confused government.
In 2004, there was no one major all-India issue. As such, the Lok Sabha contest was reduced to an aggregate of state elections, with a set of disparate and different local issues and local verdicts contributing piecemeal to an artificial countrywide mandate.
In contrast, 2009 has all the makings of a national election. The economic downturn has hit all sections – big businessmen, first-time job seekers, daily workers at construction sites, everybody. It is not a matter for state and regional parties. Terrorism is even less so. A party that presents a cogent blueprint to make India safer and offers to proactively but intelligently tackle the sources of terrorism, wherever they may be, will find ready listeners.
These are both national issues for national parties. These are both reasons why the 2009 election need not be an aggregate of state elections.
The problem is, ironically, the two national parties themselves. It is no secret that the BJP has not exploited the follies and failures of the Congress-led government as efficaciously as it should have. The Congress, on its part, has become the ultimate status quoist party.
Competing interests and lobbies – from liberalisers like Manmohan Singh to socialist control freaks like Arjun Singh; from people like P. Chidambaram, who have no minority voter concerns in their own constituencies and are okay with tough anti-terror laws, to the gaggle of party functionaries who would rather take comfort in Muslim vote banks and pretend there is no terrorism to fight – have reduced the Congress to a stagnant entity.
Essentially, both parties are carrying a lot of leftover baggage. In its present form neither is particularly inspirational or capable of promising change. At a time when India is ready for cutting-edge leadership, that commodity is just not on offer.
In many ways the coming election will be defined by absences, by what it could have been but will probably not turn out to be – a big picture election, a referendum on the future direction of this great country. This calls for more than policy tinkering. It necessitates an audacious leap into the unknown, an audaciousness the Delhi-centric political class seems incapable of.
That is the biggest concern as the election season unfolds. A society thirsting for regime change is being offered no more than a change in government, if even that. A party or a candidate that can shake up that cosy consensus in Lutyens? Delhi will win India'shearts and its votes.
The previous occasion a new, primal energy of this type swept through the power corridors of the capital was in 1998, when the BJP finally came to office. In 2009, can history do a repeat? Will it be allowed to?
(The writer a senior political commentator can be contacted at [email protected])