The 2019 Lok Sabha elections are unusual in some ways. For starters, it is probably for the first time in many years that a host of filmmakers, writers and theatre artistes have openly taken a political stance and asked voters to reject the politics of hate. In the last two weeks, hundreds of people from the world of film, theatre and literature have stuck their necks out and urged voters to choose wisely.

Over 600 theatre artistes issued an appeal “to safeguard the Constitution and our syncretic, secular ethos". Their note said: “We appeal to our fellow citizens to vote for love, compassion, for equality and social justice... Vote bigotry, hatred and apathy out of power." Nearly 200 writers made a similar appeal, while 100 filmmakers asked voters to “do everything in their capacity to keep this harmful regime from coming back to power".

These appeals, of course, cut no ice with diehard fans of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who are chanting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) slogan "Phir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar" (Modi government, once again).

From all accounts, this election is clearly polarized. The poll battle is being fought at two levels, regional and national. At the regional level, Modi faces strong adversaries in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Telangana, Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, all of which represent a majority of the parliamentary constituencies, and where the Congress has negligible influence.

At the national level, despite leading a hugely diminished party as compared to its heydays, Rahul Gandhi is the only pan-India alternative to Modi. As a keen election observer pointed out, in the ultimate analysis, this election is neither Modi versus Rahul Gandhi, nor Modi versus the rest, as much as it is Modi versus not-Modi (in other words, anybody but Modi). Meanwhile, Modi is going ahead with full force seeking votes, often ignoring the Election Commission of India’s model code of conduct. In Maharashtra on Tuesday, for instance, he sought votes from the first-time voters in memory of the Pulwama martyrs and asked them to dedicate their votes to the Balakot air strikes. Although the EC has asked for a report to be submitted on the matter, nationalism and jingoism remain his trump card in Elections 2019.

Modi seems to have got a new lease of life post the Balakot air strikes. In 2014, there was a palpable Modi wave, which helped the BJP secure nearly a third of all votes cast. This time around, there may not be such a wave, but there’s certainly a strong ripple created by the noise following the Balakot air strikes. That has provided a fillip to Modi’s image as a nationalistic strongman. Probably, a strident nationalism narrative came handy after the BJP lost several state assembly polls.

Election 2019 are by far the most crucial one to happen in India since 1977 when Indira Gandhi was voted out after two years of Emergency, one of the darkest periods in independent India’s history. Yet, it seems much more significant as it has the potential of altering the fundamental ethos of the nation as envisioned by its founding members.

Many in 2014 voted for Modi, despite not subscribing to the underlying Hindutva politics of the BJP. They were taken in by the promise of an incorruptible, decisive leader, who would usher in rapid economic development. What came instead were lynch mobs and online trolls, the imperious demonetisation decision, the intolerant attitude towards all manner of dissent and the spineless capitulation of the media. India is experiencing overt communalism, hyper-nationalism and the politicization of erstwhile agnostic institutions.

India could now vote for the devolution of political power and probably support secular regional parties in states where the option exists. An election expert feels this could open up the possibility of a third front. While perhaps less stable than the current ruling government, there would exist some inherent checks and balances that are needed for a healthy democracy.

Shuchi Bansal is media and marketing editor, Mint.

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