India Shining, the nation may be, but the BJP’s election campaigns still take no prisoners. Anything goes is their style and substance. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attacks on the opposition may seem stretched but they are deliberate. From saying Muslims, who have been shown to be among the most underprivileged communities socially and economically in India, should get a fair share of resources to saying the wealth of Hindus will be given to Muslims may be a giant leap in logic. But that’s the BJP style.

In 2019, the attacks were snide. Modi mocked Rahul for running away from Amethi to Wayanad that had substantial minority votes. But that was as much as it got to.

2024 is different. From the physical sequestration of leaders to the myriad selective cases on politicians through the sordid maneuvering in Surat and a similar signature mischief likely in Madhya Pradesh, the BJP seems to have crossed over from being on top of the electoral game to overkill.

Until recently, the BJP was seen to be winning hugely. More-than-400 seemed a target to aspire for. But, perhaps, just perhaps, there’s another side to the triumphalist rhetoric and overdose. As Phase 2 comes to end, the discourse has shifted to what the Congress has promised to do and not the BJP. Rahul Gandhi’s campaign rallies often have him project the promises in local language on a virtual screen. And he talks about them, reiterates the promises. He often goes beyond the manifesto that restricts itself to doing a socio-economic survey to ensure equity and representation. He says the wealthy will be surveyed too and identified, hinting at a direct government-aided wealth redistribution, which is almost a Bolshevik promise.

The Congress is no Bolshevik party and Rahul is no Lenin. There’s no revolutionary fervour in the country and no doddering regime either. If Rahul is doing it for purely rhetorical purposes to seize the initiative, he seems to have succeeded. Because Modi is following suit — he is turning the people’s attention to the Congress manifesto. And that seems to be an indication of apprehension — an anxiety on the part of the BJP.

The BJP may well be scared, not entirely confident inside. Modi is still not giving press interviews. But Amit Shah is. He is patiently talking to TV reporters and his face shows a certain humility. As the phases roll, it doesn’t seem a thumping victory is on the cards for the BJP.

The India Today poll promised a slightly curtailed majority for the NDA if elections were to be held in February. But it also noted that a significant majority believed either the government had done nothing or performed poorly in creating jobs and helping farmers. And opinion polls since then have differed only in predicting how big a majority Modi will get. The polls also say Modi is highly popular and there is no one to take him on. He has succeeded in presenting himself as someone who does what he does for the sake of the nation. His defense of electoral bonds does have logic behind it, possibly even good intent. And that’s why the sordidness of the scheme, the dodgy donors, and the link to raids haven’t quite sullied Modi’s integrity image.

But so was Vajpayee in 2004. He was seen as a genuine nationalist. He won in Kargil. Yet, in 2004 and in 2009, the Congress came to power based on the strength of its manifesto for the poor. The voter didn’t buy into India Shining in 2004. Modi advocates are confident that India Shining is genuine and bright now.

Modi did not quite go after the 2019 Congress manifesto that was radical on income redistribution. But now he is picking on the promises, parsing them through a fine toothcomb to beef up his arsenal of attacks.

Modi had never used rightwing economic ideas in public meetings. In the first ever budget, he showed where his thinking on the 100-day jobs scheme for villages lay. He said it made farmers beggars. But the allocations were never cut, only increased over time. Barring that one explicit mention, Modi has stayed away from espousing rightwing economics in public meetings. Until now.

Modi has always claimed to work for the poor and the farmers. Last elections saw a direct cash transfer to farmers’ pockets just ahead of elections. This time, the calculation or perhaps the faith was that the Ram temple would override everything. But Ram temple seems like a distant memory already. Rarely, if ever, does Modi harp on it.

Like US president Ronald Reagan, he says that in the Congress’ war on poverty, poverty won and that he has done better. He says poor people’s savings will be appropriated by the Congress. But, BJP ideologue Swapan Dasgupta was quick to catch Modi’s open advocacy of free market economics and opposition to income redistribution. He saw it as a sign of maturity of Indian democracy.

Dasgupta may well be right. The Left in India hasn’t quite crystallized yet but the right is very well defined now. If the BJP were to lose, the Congress may well be pushed into becoming the Democratic party of India — a broad coalition of centrists, leftists and liberals. The party’s manifesto has indeed taken radical left positions for the last two elections. But in following through and putting together a real social coalition based on ideas, the Congress hasn’t done much. It sticks to dynastic nobility as its calling card.

The Congress still strives to be all things to all people. If it changes tack, then India will have a truly bipolar polity. We won’t have a Vajpayee as well as a Manmohan Singh singing the praise of Jawaharlal Nehru anymore. There will be two different economic policies, two political ideologies, two cultures and two social outlooks.

Even if the voters serve a surprise to the BJP this time, the party will have forever changed India. In ten years, India is feeling and acting different. A 26/11 does seem impossible now. There’s a certain confidence in India although often teetering on hubris, just like Modi.

In the absence of a truly liberal-left with entrenched values, the BJP’s claim of representing the true India holds good, especially with the younger people. And that may well be its lasting legacy.

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