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How the UK election resembles India’s poll

Mark Tully / HINDUSTAN TIMES No Comments Share:
Voters pose for photos after casting ballot at a polling station in Kolkata, India, May 19, 2019. (Xinhua/Tumpa Mondal)

The Indian election campaign was so dependent on Prime Minister Narendra  Modi’s charisma that the joke going around was that senior party functionaries had achieved a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-free India, instead of a Congress-free India, because the saffron party’s name was never heard during the campaign.

Being in Britain for the last two weeks, I have been struck by the similarities between the current election campaign here – polling is due on Dec 12 – and the campaign in India earlier this year.

It is the third British election in less than four years. This political instability has been caused by the failure of Conservative governments to push any arrangements for Brexit, Britain’s departure from the European Union, through Parliament. The decision to go was taken by a narrow majority in the 2016 referendum.

Modi fought a campaign that predominantly focused on one issue. The Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson is campaigning on a single issue too.

Following the airstrike on Feb 26, when Indian warplanes crossed the de facto border in the disputed region of Kashmir and dropped bombs in the vicinity of the town of Balakot, Modi successfully made security a key issue of the election. In this way, he countered the Congress’ efforts to make the government’s economic record an issue.

Johnson’s one issue is summed up in the slogan, “Get Brexit done”. It has been described as his mantra and is in sharp contrast to the Labour’s indecisive policy on Brexit.


Dose of nationalism

Like Modi, Johnson too sells his one issue with a heavy dose of nationalism. His party’s second slogan is “unleash Britain’s potential”. He speaks in language reminiscent of Winston Churchill. On entering the PM’s official residence to assume office he said his mission was to make Britain “the greatest place on earth”.

The Indian election campaign was all about electing a Modi government. The results showed that the appeal of the Nehru-Gandhi family was no match for Modi’s charisma.

In Britain, Johnson is relying heavily on his charisma to give him victory over Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, whose loyal following doesn’t stretch beyond the committed Left-wing of his party. It would be harsh to say Corbyn has a charisma-deficit but his humourless earnestness is no match for the jocular Johnson. At the time of writing, Johnson was ahead of Corbyn in the “who would make the best PM” poll. So it looks as though in Britain too, charisma and an issue laced with nationalism will carry the day.

There are, of course, differences between the Indian and British elections.

One is that the British candidates do submit themselves to extensive and intensive scrutiny by the media and the public. They hold news conferences, give interviews and answer questions from the public on radio and television shows.

In India, leaders are not as accountable. There is also a difference in the gaps between the ideologies of the parties in the British and Indian elections. The role of religion divides Congress and the BJP.

Economics divides the Labour and Conservatives. The improbability of finding the colossal sums required to finance Corbyn’s old-fashioned socialism has helped Johnson keep the election focused on Brexit. The populist Johnson wants his victory to be as impressive as possible. He is unhappy that almost a third of British voters didn’t bother to turn out to vote in the last three elections. His government has, therefore, mounted a multimedia campaign to persuade voters to exercise their franchise.

A special effort is being made to persuade Muslims to vote. The problem for Johnson is that he may end up increasing the cynicism or lethargy of the British electorate if he wins. It is widely believed that Brexit will not be the clean surgical operation Johnson promises, but only the beginning of long tortuous negotiations to establish a new trade relationship with Europe.

Then, even more voters will agree with the disillusioned writer George Orwell, who, in his 1946 essay, Why I Write, described political language as “designed to make lies sound truthful and to give solidity to pure wind.” HINDUSTAN TIMES

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