On May 26, the Narendra Modi government completed eight years in power, and three years of its second term. This means that four or five months are all that remain before a series of elections of varying stakes pushes aside other themes to the margin of political gaze. Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh are slated for assembly elections at the end of this year, followed by Karnataka next summer, and Rajasthan, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Mizoram next winter. Beyond the coming autumn, then, a wide array of political actors, journalists and analysts will be too occupied with elections to give due space to other constituents of political discourse.
The squeezed timeframe and the pecking order of themes in political reporting and commentary have gradually come to constitute a new periodicity. There are a slew of factors shaping this reconfiguration.
First, the definition of what constitutes “run-up to the polls” has been redefined by the overcoverage of elections. The proliferation of mass media, legacy and digital, has meant the sense of election as an event now extends to covering the build-up from months earlier. Moreover, even when the election process is set in motion the element of overkill doesn’t dissuade a variety of media platforms from overextending poll coverage to the point where it’s their battleground for registering attendance.
In spatial terms, it has meant local, regional and national platforms competing for the poll feed. In other ways, it also sees the parachute variety of election coverage foraying into the turf of regular chroniclers.
To add to this, the individual use of social media and platforms such as YouTube for election coverage has further cluttered an already crowded space. The replication fatigue of this hasn’t yet weaned any actor in the space from the repetitive and stretched nature of such coverage. Instead, it has pushed the sense of build-up. In the case of the Assembly elections in five states earlier this year, for example, one saw media platforms doing district election tours and poll-caravan type segments for months before. One can imagine that if assembly elections triggered such an inflated sense of event, the national election in 2024 would mean every move made by the Modi government next year is seen through the prism of what it might imply for the grand finale.
In some ways, this hints at an underpinning and the second factor. The overstretching of the idea of the “run-up to the polls”, treating every election as a referendum on a personality or the other – primarily the prime minister – caters to the demand of turning event-driven politics into a spectator sport. That is another temptation that media coverage and commentary has found hard to resist.
Third, the role of political parties can’t be missed in reconstituting the timeframe. The sharpening of strategic aspects of electoral battles – the evolving codes of worker and voter mobilisation, the increasing role of professional inputs and technocratic focus – have combined to mean that political parties keep election machines in advanced preparatory mode. In many ways, this also becomes a round-the-year supply line of political stories and reflection. This week, for instance, we saw the two principal national parties hinting at their preparatory outlook for the 2024 election. Congress president Sonia Gandhi a task force for 2024 and the party leaders reportedly decided to review the election preparedness every “two-three days”. BJP president J P Nadda drew up a plan to strengthen the party’s weak spots, which means putting more efforts in around 74,000 electoral booths and 144 parliamentary seats where the party has assessed itself to be weak. These moves indicate that for principal actors of electoral competition, namely the political parties, the race to have the strategic edge has reconfigured the idea of an election calendar. In other words, it has made the calendar a redundant idea for most part of the year, a short-term hiatus being an exception rather than the rule when it comes to being ready for high-stakes battles in elections which otherwise may seem distant.
It’s interesting, if not disconcerting, to think that the next few months are probably the only window left in the last two years of the Modi government’s second term when electoral politics won’t be the central theme of India’s political discourse. While the election calendar has been cluttered for decades, the reordering of the idea of “build-up” into an event-driven politics has been in the making for the last two decades. The news media overextended the timeframe for reasons that were captive to spectator sport reasoning while political parties increasingly found fewer reasons to switch off the poll mode. In the midst of this, except for small windows of a few months, other political concerns, issues and policy imperatives can only hope to stay alive as subtexts to the overarching poll tales to be observed, scripted and told over the next two years.