Players and Policies 

As India’s 39-day staggered elections progress, Jayanta Roy Chowdhury looks at the factors and side actors in the unfolding drama

Indian elections have rarely if ever focused on foreign policy issues. Even when India helped Bangladesh win its freedom struggle against Pakistan through a 14-day military blitzkrieg in 1971, the then Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi refrained from making that an electoral issue.

However, following the February attack on paramilitary personnel in Pulwama, terrorism and India’s ties with neighbouring Pakistan – from where Indians believe terror attacks emanate – have become hotly debated topics in the country’s elections. At a recent rally in the border state of Rajasthan, where India’s nuclear weapons have been tested in the past, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who prides himself in having wrought a more muscular policy on Pakistan, used the dreaded ‘n’ word. Speaking of warnings by strategic experts that Pakistan has a nuclear weapon, Modi said assertively, ‘What do we have then? Have we kept our nuclear weapons for Diwali?’

The opposition Congress was quick to take the prime minister to task for using nuclear threats to heat up an already hot election campaign. Former finance minister P Chidambaram tweeted: ‘PM’s threat to use the nuclear option is the most extraordinary statement of this election.’

However, out in the streets, where the election results will be decided, this exchange of words focused public attention back on to India’s Pakistan policy and away from the South Asian giant’s problems in finding jobs for its millions – reeling under a record unemployment rate of 6.1 per cent, according to statistics prepared by a state-run organisation which have been leaked by media outlets – as well as farmer distress over low farm prices, which has made agriculture a losing proposition for millions more.

Heartland Uttar Pradesh

Political pundits had long debated whether Congress would unleash its ‘secret weapon’ – Priyanka Gandhi – to do battle against Narendra Modi from the temple town of Varanasi. Daughter of the late Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, Priyanka had hinted she would be willing to be the female David against Modi’s Goliath, if her party so wished.

But Modi is considered invincible in Varanasi, where he has widened roads, built civic amenties over the last five years and has the aura of a strongman who will deliver the goods once again, if elected. Despite rumblings of protest from silk weavers hit by Modi’s economic policies and shopkeepers whose shops have been demolished to widen roads, survey after survey has forecast a huge Modi victory in this town. So ultimately, the Congress Party decided to play safe and not risk a loss of face for the Gandhi family by fielding newcomer Priyanka.

Terrorism and India’s ties with Pakistan have become hotly debated topics in the elections

However, the party will be using her in a shoot-and-scoot campaign throughout the state of Uttar Pradesh, considered the heartland of India. Analysts consider the state crucial to any potential prime minister, as it contributes 80-odd seats to the 540-member lower house of India’s Parliament, also called the Lok Sabha (House of People) – the largest number of MP seats that any Indian state has in Parliament.

Almost in celebration of Congress’s decision not to field a Gandhi against him, the prime minister led a massive roadshow through Varanasi before filing his nomination papers. The crowds thronging to greet him were estimated to be over 600,000 strong.

Maya & Mamata

Mayawati, a Dalit (depressed) community champion who leads the Bahujan Samaj Party with a strong base in Uttar Pradesh, and Mamata Bannerjee, who runs a breakaway faction of the Congress party in the eastern state of West Bengal, called the Trinamool Congress, are two veteran leaders who, along with young North India farming community leader Akhilesh Yadav, are seen by many in the ruling BJP as the main stumbling blocks to the right-wing party’s quest to return to power in Delhi. Akhilesh has taken over the reins of the democratic socialist Samajwadi Party from his father Mulayam Singh Yadav, and is popular in his home state of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous of India’s states.

Many aver that if India’s Parliamentary polls deliver a hung verdict, the two firebrand women leaders, with Akhilesh tagging along, could well play a pivotal role in deciding who will be India’s next prime minister. Neither of them has joined the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition, nor will they under normal circumstances join the BJP’s National Democratic Alliance, given the cases the BJP-led government has filed against them and their party, and the bitterness of the public discourse between them and the BJP.

Although Modi dismissively said at a rally in Bengal that leaders of parties which are contesting 20 seats are dreaming of becoming prime minister, the fact is that the parties these three leaders run could win 70-80 parliamentary seats from the states of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Hindi-speaking Uttar Pradesh is electorally the most important state for the ruling BJP, as it managed to win 71 seats from here in the last general elections. In 2014, the Samajwadi and Bahujan Samaj parties fought separately against the BJP, giving it the easy comfort of being first past the post, despite their combined votes being higher than the BJP’s in the state.

This time round, fighting as a coalition named ‘Mahagathbandhan’ (Great Coalition), the two parties hope to maul the BJP in many seats. Losses here to Mayawati and Akhilesh could be a major factor in how near or far the BJP-led alliance is eventually to the halfway mark in the next Indian Parliament.

Mayawati , a firebrand orator from a poor family, has managed to stitch together an unlikely rainbow coalition of Dalits, Muslims and backwards for her Bahujan Samaj Party. Despite being dogged by controversies, including accusations that she is aggrandising herself by building her own statues, Mayawati has alternated between terms as chief minister and being in the political wilderness fighting corruption charges.

She has openly hinted at her own prime ministerial ambitions. ‘As far as my becoming PM is concerned, let me tell you the elections are on. Wait for the results… I have the experience. When [the] results come out, we will see,’ she told reporters recently.

The war of words has even focused on the leadership’s caste affiliation. Caste, a medieval Hindu concept which divides Indian society into hereditary social classes, with Brahmin priests at the top of the pyramid and Dalit scavengers at the bottom, is a politically sensitive issue in this North Indian state, with voting influenced by the caste of the candidate. Despite its electoral importance, caste is rarely mentioned in public discourse. However, in the heat of electoral battle, Modi, who says he is against caste politics, described himself as belonging ‘to a most backward caste’, only to be promptly challenged by Mayawati, who claimed in a counter speech that Modi belonged to an upward caste but had managed to get his group on to the list of officially recognised backward castes while he was chief minister of Gujarat.

From ‘Red’ Bengal to ‘Saffron’ Bangla?

From 1977 till 2011, West Bengal, known as the ‘Red Bastion of India’, was a unique case study for political scientists. An elected Communist Party of India (Marxist) government ruled over the state and presided over its decline from India’s premier industrial state to an also-ran, as businesses fed up with labour union militancy shifted base from Calcutta (or Kolkata, as it is now known) to Delhi and Mumbai.

Mamata broke the Communist monopoly in election wins to the state assembly in 2011 and has since had a strong grip on the state with its 42 MPs in the lower house of India’s Parliament through her Trinamool Congress. As the challenger, the BJP hopes to change that and turn Bengal‘saffron’, its brand colour.

The electoral battle in West Bengal, seen as the new turn state by the BJP, where the party’s workers have been toiling for the last few years to build up a constituency, has focused on alleged corruption in Mamata’s party versus Modi’s record as prime minister. In the last general elections the BJP won just two seats, despite polling 17 per cent of the popular vote compared to 34 seats won by Mamata’s Trinamool. This time round the BJP hopes to grab at least a dozen seats in Bengal, also known as ‘Bangla’ in Indian languages, to partly compensate for losses in Uttar Pradesh.

The Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav
The Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav

Mamata, however, is confident she will stop Modi in his tracks and Bengal will remain her exclusive turf. Everything is up for scrutiny in this tough fight. Modi has revealed in an interview that, unknown to the man in the street, for years Mamata has been sending him gifts of designer clothes and sweetmeats, despite their public spats. An outraged Mamata responded by bitterly complaining that the prime minister has tried to draw political mileage from what she considers normal friendly gestures.

Comeback trail

Dravida Munetra Kazhagam (DMK)is on the comeback trail after a long period out of power in the important southern state of Tamil Nadu. Led by M K Stalin (named after the late Soviet dictator), the party, which vows to restore Tamil pride, is looking to oust its local rival, the All India Anna DMK (AIADMK), which has joined with the BJP for these polls.

Poll pundits are sure DMK will sweep the polls, which have already been held in the state on April 18. They believe that, without the charismatic leadership of the late chief minister J Jayalalitha, an actress turned politician with a cult following, the AIADMK is a pale shadow of its former self organisationally.

Tamil Nadu is also a state which has long resented the political domination of the Hindi-speaking north and most people in this coastal state consider the BJP to be a party of dyed-in-the-wool Hindi linguistic chauvinists who at one time tried to the push the agenda of Hindi as the dominant official language of the Union. Congress, which is DMK’s ally in Tamil Nadu, is however seen as an all-India party worthy of support.

Despite its electoral importance, caste is rarely mentioned in public discourse

A series of bomb blasts by Islamic militants in neighbouring Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday has moved people in the southern state to support the BJP’s ‘robust policies against terrorism’. But the blasts in Colombo came too late to impact India’s general elections in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

Amritsari ‘Kulcha’ (bread)

Last, but not least, Hardeep Puri, a cabinet Minister in Modi’s government and India’s former ambassador to the United Nations, who also served earlier as India’s deputy high commissioner to London, has been signed on as the BJP’s candidate for the Sikh Holy City of Amritsar. Therein lies a little tale.

BJP insiders say that Puri, an alumnus of Frank Anthony Public School, a Delhi-based Anglo-Indian school, and the prestigious Hindu College, and a childhood friend of India’s finance minister Arun Jaitley, who lost the last Parliamentary elections in Amritsar, is being put up in anticipation that Congress will field former prime minister Manmohan Singh from that city.

Captain Amarinder Singh, the Congress chief minister of Punjab and scion of the royal family of Patiala, has made it an open secret that he favours putting up Manmohan Singh for the ‘safe seat’ from Amritsar.

The BJP wants it to be a tough fight, hence the choice of Puri. Incidentally, Manmohan Singh and Puri were once great friends and the grapevine has it that the thenprime minister even wanted him as India’s foreign secretary. However, Shivshankar Menon, a former Indian diplomat who was Manmohan Singh’s national security advisor, scuppered the appointment and Puri had to be content with the job of India’s ambassador to the United Nations.


The writer is an Indian journalist with three decades of experience in reporting from South Asia

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