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A CHANGE FOR THE BETTER

- Nightmare visions are a well-worn strategy of tough elections

Hyperbolic scare-mongering is an essential part of election campaigns throughout the democratic world. Political parties and rival candidates are prone to paint exaggerated, caricatured images of their opponents in the belief that fear will motivate voters into voting against something, if not for somebody. The telecast showing a little girl quietly plucking flowers and being overwhelmed by a gigantic atomic mushroom cloud is said to have had a telling effect on the American electorate in the 1964 presidential election. Lyndon Johnson would have won the race for the White House quite easily. The mushroom cloud advertisement on TV ensured that his awkward opponent Barry Goldwater was absolutely decimated .

Goldwater, it has subsequently been remarked, was a figure so detached from the American consensus that it was a miracle that he got as far as he did in national politics. Using the fear of nuclear war to devastate him in what was essentially a one-horse race was a bit like using a sledgehammer to squash an ant.

Of course, it did not seem all that disproportionate to the LBJ campaign managers 50 years ago. In the heat of a campaign when passions run very high, a detached view of the pitch of the campaign isn’t always possible.

So it was in May 2008 during the election for the mayor of London, a contest involving the old socialist warhorse Ken Livingstone and the endearingly buffoonish Boris Johnson. Looking back at that election, which Johnson won convincingly, it is quite instructive to recollect the quantum of anti-Johnson hysteria, especially after the opinion polls showed him having a clear edge over Livingstone.

On May Day of 2008, The Guardian — a newspaper that sets the left-of-centre tone in British politics — the writer, Zoe Williams, penned an article with the evocative headline, “Be afraid. Be very afraid”. The newspaper presented it as an eminent Londoner’s vision of what the city would be like “if this bigoted, lying, Old Etonian buffoon got his hands on our diverse and liberal capital”. A great mistake, the writer suggested, is to think Johnson “singles out any one group for his casual bile. It’s not just gay people or Muslims or Africans, it’s not just people from Portsmouth or indeed anywhere else on the south coast. He despises people who are not of his class because he is a snob. That, pretty much, means all of us. A snob’s London is a Monday-to-Thursday kind of affair, behind fusty doors, in clubs that only just let women in, let alone plebs, in restaurants that don’t have prices on the menus... That is not London... We know what London is. Boris is not London”.

Since that article was written, Johnson has fought yet another election for mayor of London against Livingstone and won it conclusively. With his impish sense of humour, his unkempt looks and his incessant clowning, Boris has emerged as the favourite politician of the Conservative rank-and-file and, indeed, the favourite to succeed David Cameron as the leader of the party. London remains the carefree city it was in 2008 and hasn’t been transformed into one huge gated colony where the plebs are firmly kept in their place. Reading the English newspapers regularly, I would be forgiven for imagining that the two issues that agitate Londoners are property prices and the rights of an ever-growing number of cyclists. Even his most die-hard supporters will not accuse Johnson of creating an environment where the poor, the non-whites, the sexual minorities and the other upholders of a permissive society feel threatened.

So what was the 2008 fuss and alarmism all about? In hindsight, the fears of the soul of London being destroyed by a Conservative mayor seem ridiculously contrived. Indeed, it seems like a familiar Left-wing ploy to overturn an electoral disadvantage by using the most overused socialist weapon: the class war. However heartfelt and however poetic the fears sounded seven years ago, we can afford to smile indulgently at its very un-English hyperbole.

The reason for invoking this ridiculous footnote from recent English history should be pretty obvious. As the Indian general election campaign gathers momentum, India’s variant of the Guardian-readers are working themselves up into a blue funk. The alarmist despondency has everything to do with the overwhelming impression that the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, may be on the verge of creating a historic electoral upset. The very people who till not very long ago had flooded the columns of ‘respectable’ newspapers with the bold assertion that “Gujarat isn’t India”, that “Modi represents corporate India” and that “the idea of India argues against Modi” have suddenly woken up to an unexpected uprising from below.

The defection of the ultra-secular Dalit leader, Ram Vilas Paswan, a politician who had walked out of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government protesting against the Gujarat riots of 2002, has proved to be a veritable turning point. Till then there was the self-comforting belief that Modi was preaching to the committed and that subaltern India would ensure that a ‘polarising’ leader would fail to forge a social coalition that would help him cross the 272 mark. Faith was also reposed in the Bharatiya Janata Party old-guard who would ensure that the Modi meter froze at the 160 mark, a fractured verdict that would ensure that the Gujarat leader couldn’t step out of Gandhinagar. Paswan jolted that complacency, not because he is an inspirational figure with a hold over Dalit voters all over India. His importance stemmed from the fact that he represents a large-ish section of Dalits in Bihar. If a man whose social constituency was India’s most disadvantaged could join Modi, it meant two things. First, that Modi’s deep social penetration had been vastly underestimated; and, second, that secular grandstanding was negotiable. The opinion polls haven’t suggested that the BJP-led alliance will secure an outright majority, but the example of Paswan has clearly indicated that many parties are inclined to cross over to the winning side if the opportunity presents itself.

For the better-dead-than-saffron brigade there is an additional complication. Unlike 2004, there is no faith left in the Congress. The 10-year record of the United Progressive Alliance has provoked disgust, even among its intellectual beneficiaries. Rahul Gandhi does not inspire confidence, and the talk is of a Congress resurrection in the future, minus the dynasty. There was jubilation that the Aam Aadmi Party would somehow emerge as the preferred alternative but that does not seem to be happening.

Consequently, there is a feverish bid to invoke nightmare images of the future. There are competitive assertions of drastic action in case the unthinkable happens — “I will leave India” is a promise that is unlikely to be self-fulfilling.

Modi’s victory isn’t as yet assured: it will be enough if people vote for National Democratic Alliance candidates. Assuming he is sworn in as prime minister after May 16, it is extremely unlikely the emotional architecture of India will witness a change. The committed will work towards a resurgent India with a double-digit growth; the time-servers will jockey for posts and official patronage; and the intellectuals will continue to lament over a lost idea of their India. In short, India will change, perhaps for the better, but the essence of India will be intact. And we may even look back at the imagined sounds of approaching jackboots for what they were: the alarm bells of a bitterly fought election.