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Reflections before the 16 May verdict

LiveMint logoLiveMint 11-05-2014 Anil Padmanabhan

Later today, the last of the 814 million voters would have cast their ballots in what has been the longest ever election campaign.

While we will have to wait for the declaration of results on 16 May to figure if indeed the frontrunner, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), will claim South Block, one can safely concur that the narrative of this election belonged essentially to the Gujarat chief minister, Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party and Arvind Kejriwal, the pugnacious challenger. This is undoubtedly an election for Modi and the BJP to lose. Consequently, the political fortunes, or future, of the three key players will be linked closely to the outcome.

For Kejriwal, who showed courage (some call it foolhardiness) to take on Modi in Varanasi, his personal performance, more than that of the party, in this general election would be significant. If he comes up second, shutting out the Congress challenger, Kejriwal would have set the stage for claiming the space of the opposition.

Alternatively, if he ends up a distant third, Kejriwal would have risked all the social capital he had garnered so diligently over the last two years. The ripples would surely be felt in Delhi, too, where the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), despite the middle class deserting it, continues to be popular with those at the bottom of the economic pyramid—elections to the state assembly are likely in the next six months. It would have a particular bearing on the organization.

Unlike the AAP, the Congress will, in the event of a defeat, suffer for loss of energy, but will retain its historical organizational base that will provide the basis to mount a battle at a future date—in politics, like in life, nothing is permanent. Like the Indian Railways, the Congress, given its historical head start over its competitors, has managed to create an organizational presence in every part of the country—it’s another matter that, once again, like the Railways, it has allowed it to wither.

Similarly for Gandhi, a defeat in this election need not necessarily mean the worst, provided of course he is able to spin it as part of the process of rebuilding. It is actually a great opportunity to get rid of the dead wood that has come into leadership position and stymied the party’s prospects through errors of omission and commission. But for that he has to demonstrate clear leadership, not reflect on the power of inheritance; it will actually be a test of character. So if indeed his party is relegated to the opposition benches, then it is for him to seize the moment as the leader of the opposition to establish his political credentials.

If chutzpah, miles clocked (the latest Mile-O-Meter tracker of Mint reveals that Modi travelled 124,531km, compared with Gandhi’s 79,069km and Kejriwal’s 3,898km) and sheer energy levels were the criterion, then Modi has already won this election. It also makes him, of the three, the one who has the most at stake in this campaign.

Over the last one year, he has managed to prevail, first over his party, including dissidents, and later over the campaign to make this an election about him. Of course, the direct attacks launched by his political rivals and religious polarization (by acts of commission and perceived sense of minority appeasement) only further established his sway on this election. Not since Indira Gandhi has one seen an individual politician draw so much attention, from the electorate and rivals alike. What is to be seen whether this popularity has been monetized in a historic win for the BJP. But even if he stumbles, it is unlikely that his displaced rivals (or those waiting for him to trip up) will be able to unseat Modi.

Regardless of the outcome, it is clear that these three politicians will also be a key part of the future narrative of Indian politics. They will fight each other as much as they will feed off each other. For Kejriwal, the battle has just begun; as a political formation, the AAP has made its case emphatically in Delhi. Now, after the recent stumbles, it has to regroup and find a new ideology to champion. Similarly, for Rahul Gandhi, with a victory unlikely in this election, it is time to push through his claim that he is indeed committed for the long haul. In the shadow of a crushing defeat, this will be an even more difficult task.

In the first phase of their battle for the mind of India, Modi has ended up as the lead actor in this cast. The verdict on 16 May will determine the lead star for the second phase of India’s electoral potboiler. May the best man win.

Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at

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