The greatest festival on Earth?

Jayanta Roy Chowdhury assesses the people, policies and prospects in what is being billed as the largest poll in global history

It is election season once again in India and it’s wearing a festive look. Bunting and banners of rival political parties and candidates jostle for space in the country’s hundreds of thousands of towns and villages. Vehicles roam the myriad lanes, their loudspeakers blaring political slogans interspersed with popular Bollywood musical scores, while mammoth rallies spring up for politicians criss-crossing the countryside. Some call this the ‘Greatest Festival on Earth’, a celebration of democracy by 1.3 billion people.

Around 900 million voters across a million polling stations will decide which party will form the next Federal Government in Delhi. The ballot will be spread over seven dates in April and May due to the logistics in a continental-sized country with the world’s second largest population –greater than the US and Europe’s combined.

India’s Centre for Media Studies estimated parties and candidates spent $5 billion on the 2014 general elections, and political analysts believe that figure will likely double this year. Although an independent Election Commission monitors spending, analysts believea lot of cash-flow during elections is from India’s vast parallel ‘black’ economy, reckoned to be half the size of the country’s $2.9 trillion official economy.

Some 11 million staff and security personnel will work to make this massive election, billed as the largest ever in global history, a success. A huge variety of transportation – from trains, boats, planes and helicopters to elephants and camels – will convey the staff and ballot machines. Thousands of polling parties will trek for days to reach polling stations in deep forests and Himalayan ranges, otherwise inaccessible.

At stake are coveted seats in the 543-member lower house of Parliament, or Lok Sabha (House of People), which makes the country’s laws. A multi-party democracy, India has some 1,709 registered political parties, though only a handful have influence in more than two or three states. The MPs elected will choose from among themselves the man or woman who will rule India for the next five years.

Who will rule India?

Though India chose to be a democracy on gaining independence 72 years ago, voters have always had a fondness for strong leaders, even if this fostered dynasties. The first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who led India from 1947 till his death in 1964, was known for his autocratic ways. His daughter Indira Gandhi, the country’s third premier and arguably its most charismatic to date, who led the country from 1966 to 1977 and then again from 1980 till her tragic killing in 1984, was known as the ‘only person who wore pants’ in her cabinet. After these two leaders, only one prime minister has had more than one term in office – the mild-mannered Dr Manmohan Singh, an economist by training who opened India’s marketplace to the world and ushered the lumbering elephantine economy into a period of fast-paced transformation.

The electorate’s mood has swung over the last few weeks

The BJP’s Narendra Modi, billed as India’s latest ‘strong man’, is now vying for a second term as premier. Despite his time in office bringing a spanking 7 percent plus GDP growth, a fight against corruption and attempts to digitalise governance, which the people supported, his popularity ratings had been slipping in the run-up to the elections, with the loss of three major heartland state elections in December. This was largely due to an unpopular overnight decision to demonetise 86 percent of India’s currency by value and a botched attempt to bring in an all-India Goods and Services Tax, both of which led to many factory closures and a reportedly 45-year-high unemployment rate, as well as protests by farmers over stagnant commodity costs and rising prices.

However, the electorate’s mood has swung over the last few weeks after the February 14 terror attack in Kashmir, which sparked tit-for tat air strikes by rival Indian and Pakistani Air Forces, arousing nationalistic debate and focusing Indians’ attention on the border rather than the economy.

Who will win the elections and by how many seats is, of course, still a matter of conjecture. The BJP, which won a majority of 267 seats in the last Lok Sabha elections, hopes national security, promises of development (‘vikas’) and the image of Modi as a strong leader will be the key issues for voters.

Its principal rival, on the other hand – the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress – hopes that dwindling jobs and incomes could propel the 134-year-old party, which won just 44 seats in the last elections, to power this time round. Young Gandhi is being helped by his sister Priyanka, who many see as having inheritedthe charisma of their grandmother, the late Indira Gandhi.

In her grandmother’s footsteps

CHARISMATIC: Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, grand-daughter of the late Indira Gandhi
CHARISMATIC: Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, grand-daughter of the late Indira Gandhi

Many joke that 47-year-old Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is being fielded by Congress and the Gandhis as a ‘Plan B’, in case Rahul continues to disappoint at the polls. Regardless of whether such snide remarks hold any truth, Priyanka has shown an enviable ability to make meaningful, politically-laden statements, with a skilfully crafted maiden speech in Modi’s homeland, Gandhinagar,which was, alarmingly for the BJP, very popular. Her uncanny resemblance to Indira Gandhi appeals to most middle-aged and older voters, while the young can relate to her language and aspirations.

Priyanka does carry the baggage of her husband Robert Vadra, a businessman facing a money laundering charge, though it does not appear to weigh too heavily on her. Observers believe she has the makings of another Gandhi leader, but it will take time for her appeal to broaden. The general consensus is that she could be a political storm at some stage, but not yet.

Modi from Puri…

STRONG MAN: Modi is vying for a second term as premier
STRONG MAN: Modi is vying for a second term as premier

Narendra Modiis strong on symbolism. BJP members from Odisha, a coastal eastern state where the party has never won power, want Modi to contest from the state’s holy city of Puri, where millions of devout Hindus go on pilgrimage every year. The influence of the city’s Brahmin priests on Hindus in India’s eastern states of Odisha, West Bengal, Assam and Manipur is said to be considerable. Bengal is a target for the BJP, which was hitherto seen by many as a party from Hindi-speaking northern India and western India, from where Modi hails. A win in the east could bridge that gap, Modi’s advisors feel. Till now, however, Modi has remained enigmatic about demands to field him from the seaside pilgrimage town.

In the 2014 general elections, besides contesting from Vadodara in Gujarat, his home state, Modi also fought from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. India allows candidates to contest from more than one constituency but even if they win from more than one, they can retain only a single seat in Parliament.

Varanasi is considered by devout Hindus to be Hinduism’s Jerusalem, while the state of Uttar Pradesh has the largest number of seats in Parliament. A win in Varanasi was seen as symbolic. Modi did win and decided to retain the seat, giving up the Vadodara constituency. Will he try his magic on Puri this time round?

Uttar Pradesh has the largest number of seats in Parliament

…and Rahul from the south

The other intriguing political demand being made by Congress is that Rahul Gandhi should fight from a seat in either Karnataka or Tamil Nadu, as well as his regular electoral constituency of Amethi.

In her ‘come-back’ election in 1980, his grandmother had contested from both Rae Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh and Medak, in what is now Telengana state. Mrs Gandhi is believed to have done this for two reasons – firstly to ensure she won at least one seat, and secondly, as most of her party MPs were then from the south, to build on a loyal base by being amidst them.

Today’s political north-south divide is a silent elephant in the room, with the ruling BJP counting on little support in South India, except in Karnataka, even as they continue to be ‘numero uno’ in western and northen India.

Since Mrs Gandhi’s days, Congress has conceded much ground to regional parties in three of the five southern states. Surprisingly, however, its former support base has not disappeared entirely and there is hope of a modest revival. In Telangana, where assembly elections were held a few months ago, Congress managed to win just 19 seats, but its vote share percentage remained high.

Election Commission statistics show that Congress won 28.4 per cent of the total votes polled. Significantly, this was higher than the 25.2 per cent it obtained in the previous assembly election and also more than the 20.5 per cent it managed in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. For the record, the BJP’s vote share was a paltry 7 per cent in the assembly polls in Telangana four months ago, a decrease of nearly 2 per cent from the 2014 Modi wave election.

Jayanta Roy Chowdhury is a Senior Indian journalist

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