: Congress Party's Rahul Gandhi and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi | Credit: Wikimedia Commons - Photo: 2014

The Significance of Coming Elections in India

By Jayantha Dhanapala* | IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

KANDY, Sri Lanka (IDN) – The general elections for 543 seats in the 16th Lok Sabha (the Lower House of Parliament) in India are due in May 2014 and are of indisputable importance. It is also a gigantic electoral exercise with about 800 million voters, 150 million voting for the first time, in the world’s most populous democracy. Consequently, analyzing the trends and the likely outcome is of crucial importance globally.

As the incumbent Congress Party-led coalition faces the rising Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and its allies, the Delhi based Aam Admi Party (AAP) led by Kejriwal threatens to queer the pitch as a third force. To add to the confusion Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of Bihar talks of a Third Front with the JD(U), the CPI and the CP (M).

Whatever the outcome, the trend in recent Indian Parliamentary elections has shown a “regionalization” of politics and the vital need for the national parties to form alliances with regional state based parties in order to form coalitions. That has had an impact on India’s foreign policy. Thus West Bengal politics influences India’s policy towards Bangladesh and Tamilnadu based parties – Dravida Munetra Kazagham (DMK) led by Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha’s AIADMK – vie with each other in having a decisive impact on relations with Sri Lanka. India’s neighbours are generally better off with a strong centre in the Indian Union.

Opinion polls are seldom an accurate guide to election outcomes especially when conducted in Asian societies where inherent cultural inhibitions make voters more reserved about divulging their political views to others let alone pollsters.

However, three polls conducted in January point to the BJP getting more seats than Congress but neither party securing a majority by getting the required 272 seats or more. Thus the result will be a BJP led coalition as things stand. Another major feature of the poll is that the personal popularity of Modi – the son of a tea vendor with an impressive record as an economic manager in Gujarat widely admired by the bureaucracy and the private sector – is higher than that of the BJP. And this is in spite of the controversy around Modi because of his alleged role in the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 (over which he has been cleared legally).

Prominent personalities like Dr.Subramaniam Swamy, ex DIG Kiran Bedi, retired Ambassador Hardeep Puri and many others have hopped on the BJP bandwagon. Congress has targeted Modi in their campaign ever since he was nominated as the Prime Ministerial candidate last September. The fact that Rahul Gandhi, while leading the Congress electoral campaign, has not been nominated as candidate for PM (prime minister) by the Congress is perceived as a sign of weakness. (Rahul Gandhi comes from the politically influential Nehru-Gandhi family.)

The backdrop to this political process is the socio-economic situation of a country of 1.2 billion which has begun to surge forward economically like many others in the Global South such as Brazil, China and South Africa. At the same time inequalities and gaps in the development process reveal large segments of marginalized populations in addition to the deeply entrenched caste factor.

Increase in number of billionaires

Oxfam in a recent report has this to say – “India has seen its number of billionaires increase from less than 6 to 61 in the past decade, concentrating approximately $250bn among a few dozen people in a country of 1.2 billion. What is striking is the share of the country’s wealth held by this elite minority, which has skyrocketed from 1.8 percent in 2003 to 26 percent in 2008, though it declined in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.”

Corruption charges during the Congress-led Coalition’s second term has been especially damaging as it contributed to widening economic disparities impacting on the social stability of the country, its democratic institutions and its security. An estimated 30% of members of Parliament have criminal cases pending against them.

The future of secularism – India’s hallowed doctrine from its inception distinguishing it from the theocracy of Jinnah’s Pakistan – is in doubt. The panoply of liberal democratic values of Nehruvian vintage such as the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, freedom of speech, gender equality etc. have all come under stress and strain.

Will the expanding middle class (an estimated 30% are urban voters) and the technology fascinated youth segment (20% are between the ages of 18-25 and are first time voters) be greater guardians of these values than the generation of post Independence India under Nehru.

Women comprise 50% of the voters and agitation over rapes and discrimination will have its impact.

History has proved that inequalities – whether political, economic or social – lie at the root of group discontent which, if neglected, festers into political dissent and, lacking adequate legal outlet within the system, into political terrorism and its horrifying consequences.

The Common Man’s Party

A people suffering under inequalities also look to populist leaders and parties as a remedy for their grievances. Arvind Kejriwal, the IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) graduate who worked in the Inland Revenue Service where he was directly exposed to the rich not paying their dues to society, served a political apprenticeship under Anna Hazare on the anti-corruption issue demanding a Lokpal (“caretaker of people”, an ombudsman).

Convinced that he should work within the political system and broaden his political agenda he set up the common man’s party – the AAP. Within a short space of time the AAP gathered large numbers of supporters, winning 28 seats in (India’s national capital) Delhi where it has formed the administration with tacit support from Congress. The AAP has begun recruiting on a national scale and plan to contest in about twenty states. (India comprises twenty-eight states and seven union territories.) If successful they could tip the balance for a coalition. The AAP are still inexperienced in the actual task of governance and some of their actions like the disruptive dharna (a sit-in accompanied by fasting) on the streets of Delhi and controversial statements have lost it some support.

At the same time the AAP must guard against the anarchy that they find acceptable now as a David fighting a Goliath. A dangerous descent into violence will make their people centred democratic alternative not very different from fascism and dictatorship. An aggressive anti-AAP campaign on social media is on and it does seem that the BJP have more to fear the AAP than the Congress. In the weeks ahead there will be many developments in the electoral campaign which could influence the outcome. A major change in foreign policy is unlikely but the world will be watching and waiting for the election result of a major country armed with nuclear weapons.

*Jayantha Dhanapala is a former UN Under-Secretary-General and a former Ambassador of Sri Lanka. These are his personal views. [IDN-InDepthNews – February 5, 2014]

The writer’s previous articles on IDN:

2014 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Image: Congress Party’s Rahul Gandhi and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi | Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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