[Indian voters are going to the polls. The stakes are high – economic and social and religious – in what is seen as a critical election for the future balance of the country’s institutions in the Commonwealth’s largest member. The Round Table’s Paul Flather sets the scene and outlines the key issues following a recent visit. Opinions expressed in our columns do not reflect the editorial position of The Round Table.]
The ‘greatest political show on earth’, as it has sometimes been dubbed, is underway in India. In all 900 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots – there was a 66 percent voter turnout last time round – to decide if Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done enough to justify a second five-year term in office as he and his Hindu-based Bhratiya Janta Party desperately seek.
India – which constitutes more than half the total 2.3 billion that make up the Commonwealth and some 26 per cent of internal Commonwealth trade – is mobilising some 10 million election officers to cover some one million polling booths (no voter should have to walk more than 2 km) in some seven phases of electoral voting in 543 constituencies, involving more than 10,000 candidates and perhaps some 500 separate political parties.
In 2014, Mr Modi won a handsome landslide victory for his governing National Democratic Alliance with 300 seats in the Lok Sabbha (Lower House) over a Congress Party alliance running out of steam and mired in a series of corruption scandals.
Mr Modi showed himself a hugely adept political campaigner with sharp slogans that captured the imagination of the new Generation Y millennials, promising modernity in the form of jobs, economic development, digitisation. This was captured in his slogan Achhe Din (Happy Days are back again).
It is an axiom of Indian politics that incumbency often turns out to be perceived negatively among voters. Voters will need to ask themselves many tricky questions as they go to the polls: Has he done enough to deliver on his promises on development? Have enough new jobs been created? Have farmers and the rural poor been neglected? Is the BJP itself really clear of corruption and manipulation? Will the BJP’s strong pro-Hindu policies upset balances of diversity that mark Indian politics?
A revived Congress Party, led by a much-improved campaigner Rahul Gandhi, has taken the attack to Mr Modi – a dominant presence in Indian politics – promising, in a thoughtful manifesto, a much more inclusive political regime, a new universal basic income to tackle poverty, a focus on rural poverty, extending health and education programmes, and reaching out to hundreds of millions of hard-pressed debt-ridden farmers.
What the polls say
That is likely to win Congress many more seats this time around, and polls suggest that it should double their 2014 total. But then that is not difficult, as Congress slumped to just 44 seats last time around. That will still leave it well short of being able to form a government and unlikely to rally together a ragbag of regional coalition partners.
Indeed, a recent poll of polls, carried out by the NDTV broadcasting network – itself openly attacked by the BJP government for a perceived liberal political stance – concluded that Mr Modi and his BJP party are set to win 228 seats – and with its Hindu allies is set to breach the 273-majority mark. The Congress UPA alliance, polls suggest, will reach 140, with Others and Independents winning 129 seats.
There are perhaps three key reasons to expect a return of the Modi government. First, Mr Modi himself. He simply towers above all other Indian politicians. He also dominates his party in a way that only Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi used to dominate the Congress Party, extending his power over party and Government. In 2014, the BJP Manifesto depicted a BJP team on its cover, this time around it is dominated by the figure of Mr Modi alone.
There were question marks whether he still had the energy to campaign, extremely demanding in India and whether his staccato style might turn out stale. But recent weeks seem to have confirmed that, despite his 68 years, he remains a confident, energetic campaigner, someone still seen as the, perhaps the only, politician who can get things done.
Secondly, he has cleverly harnessed nationalist rhetoric to his campaign, outmanoeuvring all Opposition leaders. Breaking long-set conventions, in February Mr Modi launched Indian Mirage 2000 fighter planes to bomb an alleged terrorist training base at Balakot deep in Pakistan – crossing the so-called Line of Control which since 1947 divides Pakistan- and Indian-controlled areas of the disputed state of Kashmir.
He praised Indian soldiers as national heroes – his army – and channelled a high popular current Bollywood action movie called “Surgical Strike” – using the much-copied catch phrase of its Rambo-style hero: “go for the josh (burn)”. The incursion followed a huge terrorist bomb blast in Kashmir last February that left 46 Indian troops dead and many more injured, devastating the nation.
Strong man image
Rahul Gandhi and other leaders were forced to support the intervention and join in the media-hyped chorus of praise for brave soldiers protecting the nation – boosting the image of Modi as a strong man able to defend the nation’s security. It was also all in marked contrast to the then Congress Government’s responses to the notorious terrorists’ attacks in Mumbai and the Parliament a decade ago.
At a time of global uncertainties, an unpredictable US President, a rising China with its more aggressive global stance epitomised by its One Belt, One Road, hugely embedded in Pakistan, and populist style politics in vogue all over the world, going for the ‘josh’ revived Mr Modi’s poll figures at just the right moment. “The country is in safe hands,” he claimed, though this is as much to do with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s low-key response, even releasing a captured Indian helicopter pilot without rancour.
Thirdly, despite some significant gains by opposition parties in several key state assembly elections last year, most significantly Rajasthan, it has become increasingly apparent that it is going to prove very hard to stitch together an opposition UPA coalition government. There are simply too many egos, too significant ethnic, caste, class, and, above all, regional interests amongst the many state-based parties to unite, even if they do accept, by and large, that Rahul, as the leader of the only other all-India political party, would be the one to take its PM post.
For sure, there are also many reasons why voters might hold off from putting Mr Modi back in his South Block offices. Official government data recently revealed that unemployment rates – a key manifesto claim in his 2014 manifesto – have never been higher since the 1970s.
Then farmers have been protesting increasingly vociferously over rural poverty and policies that seem to favour cities and urban areas, and headlines over farmer suicides have badly damaged the Government.
The well-publicized programmes to improve sanitation and toilet facilities across the country have stalled, and his much-vaunted policy to rid the country of black money by banning certain high currency notes from circulation totally backfired. The poor and hundreds of millions of small businesses were hugely disrupted without cash, while banned notes have now gradually even made their way back into circulation.
The Government has also become embroiled in its own corruption allegations, notably over a recent Rafale airplane deal. The BJP government has also been accused of ordering a series of tax raids on the homes of many leading opposition leaders in recent weeks.
However, most significant of all, must be the much wider dilemma that Indian voters face in opting to return a Government that has all too obviously been undermining the autonomy of liberal Indian institutions such as newspapers, the judiciary, universities, and civil society bodies in favour of promoting a stronger Hindu philosophy.
The BJP has attacked professionals who have chosen to speak out against the so-called Hinduvta Agenda, pursued by the BJP and its allies to keep its cadres onside and to keep its supporters happy. I was even, inevitably, drawn into various academic freedom controversies with colleagues I know on my own visit to India.
The BJP even attempted to revive the highly controversial issue of building a temple dedicated to the God, Ram, at Ayodha, the site of a former Muslim temple which was torn down by Hindu extremists in 1992 in highly controversial circumstances. The fall-out has seen a never-ending series of litigation challenges and court cases, with the Supreme Court doing its best to damp down emotion and controversy largely with inquiries and deferments.
In January, though, the Government moved to give all the surrounding acres of the temple site, held in limbo, back to former owners, many of whom would be sympathetic to the temple project.
Watching the Watchman
An election though is about choices. Voters will need to decide if they are ready to switch their trust to Rahul Gandhi, who has clearly been taking lessons in campaigning and leadership, and promises a more inclusive form of government, or to stick with Modi, with the risk that he will likely, in a second term, continue his Hinduvta shift away from the secularist settlement that Nehru and the Congress introduced in the 1950s.
Mr Modi likes to portray himself as India’s chowkidar (watchman) who can be trusted to look after the country. During the rough and tumble of the election campaign, Mr Gandhi has hit back by calling out the chowkidar for failing India by allowing so many ills under his watch.
The count starts on 23 May and one prediction seems clear – the Indians are unlikely to give Mr Modi such a thumping victory that he could use his majoritarian position to shift the complex and often delicate institutional balances that make up Indian politics.
Frankly, Mr Modi should have his own balancing act to manage among his coalition and that should ensure diversity and the centre-regional balance of power remain in play.
Once settled, though, whoever wins, it will be important that India also takes forward its commitments at the 2018 London CHOGM to play a large role in the future Commonwealth operations.