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As the bitter campaign ends, EC gets ‘average’ on its report card, says P Chidambaram

P Chidambaram
Poling officials checking EVMs and VVPATs before leaving their polling booth at a distrubution centre ahead of the seventh and last phase of Lok Sabha polls in Kolkata (PTI Image)

It has been a long, tiresome and sometimes depressing 10 weeks from the date of the notification to the last date of polling which is today. We have seen an abundance of everything except debates on policies. There has been an abundance of political parties, candidates, rallies and roadshows, money spent, abuses hurled, violence, failure of the vaunted EVMs and VVPATs, and clean chits by the Election Commission (EC). Yet, at the end of the day, a democratic exercise of an enormous scale has been completed.

The EC has got only average on its report card. What intrigued me was the different standards that were applied in different states. For example, in Tamil Nadu, road shows, convoys of cars and hoardings were not allowed; posters and wall writings were banned in towns and cities; expenditure observers were intrusive and arbitrary; and the concept of notional expenditure was carried to ridiculous lengths. On the other hand, Delhi and constituencies in the north, west and east of India were awash with hoardings and posters. Roadshows and l-o-n-g convoys appeared to be the rule. Mind-boggling expenditure was visible, the expenditure observers were not. I wonder how the EC can justify such patently discriminatory regulations.

Media: which one?
The print and visual media took sides. Most were on the side of the government out of either love or fear more likely the latter. Some became fellow-travellers of the BJP. None seemed to remember that a national election to the Lok Sabha was an examination on the five-year record of the government. Few newspapers and fewer channels dared criticise or expose the record of the BJP government. Thanks to the online media and social media, there was a lively debate in the country. It is the impact of that vibrant debate what is vaguely described as the undercurrent that will decide the outcome of the elections.
All manifestos, except one, were ignored, even by the authors! The Prime Minister was not willing to campaign on the BJP s manifesto. Mr Rahul Gandhi repeated the Congress s promises, especially on NYAY, farmers issues and jobs, at every meeting.

Economy was missing
The BJP shifted gears early in the campaign. Achche din was never mentioned. The 2014 promises were an embarrassment to the BJP. Mr Narendra Modi took refuge under surgical strike , Pulwama-Balakot and nationalism. Surgical strike was just another cross-border action that did not deter Pakistan. Pulwama was a massive intelligence failure. Balakot is shrouded in mystery. Mr Modi s nationalism argument divided the country into Are you with me or are you against me? , and if you were against Mr Modi s policies, you were anti-national. By that standard, all those who voted against the BJP in 2019 will be anti-national and we may well become a nation of predominantly anti-nationals!

The Economy was forgotten. There were tremors when credible reports and official data surfaced and punched huge holes in the false narrative of the government. While the Prime Minister was campaigning and the finance minister was writing blogs, the economy tanked (see Economy has entered danger zone , The Sunday Express, May 12, 2019). There has been more bad news in the last week. Manufacturing growth turned negative in February 2019 and remained negative in March 2019. The Sensex and Nifty recorded nine straight days of fall in the index. The dollar-rupee exchange rate touched `70.26. Newspapers carried unflattering stories on the outcomes of Swachh Bharat, Ujjwala and PMAY. After the US tightened the screws on Iran, India scrambled to get oil, even as oil prices rose. The tariff war between the US and China intensified, raising fears of collateral damage to India s external trade.

The level of public discourse declined sharply. There is no denying that abuses and epithets were hurled across the net but, in the melee, even sarcasm and allusion were labelled unparliamentary! Slap of democracy was taken literally as a threat to slap the Prime Minister. An allusion to a Mahabharata character was interpreted as name-calling. Mr Narendra Modi took offence to everything that was said about him and played victim, ignoring the fact that he had left behind a long trail of victims.

Many sides to Mr Modi
Towards the end of the campaign, like an unexpected cloudburst in mid-summer, there was a shower of unintended humour. We owe a debt of gratitude to the Prime Minister. He lightened the bitter campaign with remarkable revelations about his encounters with science and technology. The first was on the Balakot air strike. Mr Modi said, Experts were re-thinking the air strike due to bad weather, but then I said so much cloud cover and rains could be beneficial, we can escape their radar. This was my raw wisdom. Then I said, there s cloud cover, please go ahead.

Recalling his association with Mr L K Advani, Mr Modi said, Around 1987-88, I used digital camera for the first time… I took a photo of Advaniji and transmitted it to Delhi. Advaniji was surprised and asked, How did my colour photo appear today? .

Mr Modi s surreal experiences with science must be God s blessings. I was reminded of another story told by Mr Modi in 2014. God has gifted me the sense of mixing and matching colours. Since I am God-gifted, I fit well in everything.
God is watching India s elections.