In less than eight weeks, India will be in the middle of a boisterous election campaign. In another few weeks – by the end of May, India will have a new government. In a land of serial elections that take place over a number of weeks, the impending parliamentary election is truly big one.
For starters, this will be a parliamentary poll, not a round to elect provincial governments. The numbers are huge: 815 million voters are eligible to vote to elect 543 lawmakers. The numbers of registered voters has gone up dramatically by almost a hundred million from 716.9 million in 2009 when the last parliamentary poll was held.
What makes it particularly significant in 2014 is that nearly 20% – 163 million – of voters will be first time voters in the age group of 18-25. This is the demographic group that has, in the years it acquired political consciousness, been brought up on the staple diet of discourse on policy paralysis and corruption in high places. This fact suggests it will be very difficult for the present ruling coalition to return to power.
As India prepares to go to the polls, it is worth recalling some significant facts. Since 1984, no single party has secured a majority. That time the Congress party romped home by the highest ever majority following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The closest that any party came to securing a majority since then was in 1991, when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by alleged Tamil militant groups fighting for independence in Sri Lanka.
From 1989, India has been governed by either coalition governments or – like in 1991 – by a minority government. Part of this has been attributed to Indian politics becoming more fragmented, rising political aspirations of the hitherto underprivileged and the collapse of the traditional party system. In recent decades, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has emerged as a significant party and has been in power once for six years at the head of a coalition government. The party is making a determined bid this time to return to the government after a shock defeat in 2004 resulted in it being out of power for a whole decade.
Indian parliamentary elections have in recent years taken on the colour of the American presidential style of polls. As a result, the prime ministerial candidates of the main parties have attracted both media and public attention. Until a few months ago, it appeared that elections in 2014 would be a two-horse race with Narendra Modi of the BJP and Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party as the two principal candidates.
There was considerable opposition to Modi even within his ranks, because of alleged complicity in riots that erupted in Gujarat – the state he has governed for the past 13 years – in March 2002 after the torching of a train that killed 59 Hindu activists returning from the site of a major religious dispute that was initially instrumental in pitchforking BJP from being a peripheral political force to a significant party.
Until December last, various opinion polls and surveys suggested that Modi was forging ahead as his personal popularity soared. He was seen as a pro-development leader who had the capacity for firm action and was personally incorruptible. The three attributes attracted India’s burgeoning middle classes that were badly hit by the slowdown in the Indian economy on the one hand and were incensed by allegations of rampant corruption in government on the other.
Rahul Gandhi, for all his earnestness, was seen as a leader whose sincerity had few takers even within his own party. But in December the two-horse race suddenly appeared to change its course as a new entrant entered the fray. This development was the result of the dramatic performance of the Aam Aadmi Party – Common Man Party – which was formed just months prior to state elections in New Delhi. Coming close on the heels of a public uprising in support of an anti-graft agitation in 2011 and a gigantic protests after the brutal gang rape of a young girl in December 2012, the AAP suddenly queered the pitch because of fears that its success in the national capital could have a spiralling affect in other urban majority seats, potentially 70-90 of the total seats up for grabs.
Though it is too early to correctly make an assessment, it is evident that BJP will be entering the fray with fewer allies than in the past. The same appears to be the case of Congress party as association with the Grand Old Party of Indian politics is now being considered a liability and not a benefit. This naturally makes the regional and other smaller parties that are expected to win anything between 220-250 seats very significant players, even though internationally the spotlight is rarely on them.
These are still early days in the election. In Indian elections dramatic developments are known to change the course of the narrative suddenly. As elections come closer, it will be possible to gaze into a crystal ball more sharply.