The elephant of Indian democracy is ready for the biggest election festivity of the world with the ‘Mahout’ - the Election Commission - announcing a nine-phase marathon carnival in the months of April and May.
The scale of national elections in India is vaster than that of United States and Europe combined, the evidence of which is in the humungous numbers. Over 814.5 million eligible voters will cast their ballot through Electronic Voting Machines that would be set up in 9,30,000 polling stations across the country.
These elections would not just be the longest, but also the costliest with an estimated spend of Rs 3500 crore, and this excludes the expenditure on security and campaigning by candidates.
Clearly, despite all its faults, India’s democracy also remains its best success.
With the poll bugle sounding for 2014, candidates have hit the hustings with vengeance. The battle looks likely to be one that will be hotly contested and the claptrap at rallies is already turning crude. Few elections in the past have seen such malice laced repartee becoming common place; from 10 numbari to accusations of impotency, loads of invectives have flown thick and fast.
Possibly, these are symbolic of insecurities and raw ambitions hemmed in politicians and the prize that is at stake. As two successive terms of United Progressive Alliance come to an end, the field looks open for anyone.
Congress – On the Wane
The Congress which is facing a double anti-incumbency is, arguably, looking at its weakest since 1996-98. With spiralling prices and numerous corruption charges marking its second tenure, UPA is undoubtedly on the back foot. Its flock seems to have gone asunder with reports of its MPs crossing over to the BJP. Not just have former ministers like D Purandeshwari migrated, more embarrassing still have been cases like Jagadambika Pal, Raju Srivastava, or somone like Bhagirath Prasad, who quit despite being allotted a ticket from Bhind (Madhya Pradesh). There are now reports that some of its prominent MPs and cabinet ministers may not be very keen to contest at all this time, clearly showing the party may have accepted defeat even before the ballots have been cast.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had announced his retirement at a press conference at Vigyan Bhavan, so that’s a closed chapter. Sonia Gandhi has been pushing Rahul Gandhi to the forefront for long and he is a part of six-member election committee which is looking at alliances, campaign strategy and the Congress manifesto.
Rahul, in a sense, holds out to be the biggest promise and weakness of the Congress. While a Gandhi at helm works as glue in the party, the potential of the scion is being questioned by even those who are within.
Rahul Gandhi has embarrassed his own prime minister by offering to tear up a UPA ordinance that would have allowed convicted politicians to contest elections even as he has failed to make a mark on his own. If one were to look at the state elections that he has handled, not only is the recent 4-1 assembly contest a bad enough harbinger, his decision to face a ruthless television journalist only damaged his image further and alienated the Sikh community.
Apparently, a senior Congressman commented immediately after the interview that the party had just lost another 10 seats. And the tally was already being predicted to be pathetic; psephologists and opinion polls are envisaging not more than 100 seats for the party that had romped home with 206 seats in the 15th Lok Sabha elections.
Some of these nearly 100 seats were likely to come from the Telangana area, which will come into its own as a separate state after these elections thanks to the unholy haste Congress displayed in pushing the bill. However, with Telangalan Rashtra Samithi (TRS) first backing out of merging into the Congress and now out of even forming an alliance with it, the 17 seats of the region are no guarantee.
So whatever Congress gathers will either come from its stronghold bastions or thanks to its traditional vote banks like Muslims and STs.
As per Census data, 46 Lok Sabha constituencies have more than 30% Muslims in population and the community can make an impact in 110 seats. But whether these seats will go to Congress is a big question, given the fact that several regional outfits like Samajwadi Party (SP), Janata Dal-United (JD-U) etc will be vying for the same pie.
BJP – Sensing Opportunity
The Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP), on the other hand, seems more energised than ever in the recent past. Modi has galvanised the rank and file of the party and his backroom boys are working overtime to turn him into Brand Modi. Industrialists, common people and those at the margins but with aspirations to fly are giving him thumbs up. Who, they question, would not want to replicate the success he has brought to Gujarat at the Centre.
Each of rallies is hugely well attended and all the paraphernalia – Modi cups, T-shirts, masks and pens are being freely distributed to generate hype and recall. Undoubtedly, Modi has good administrative abilities and he is a man who can turn adversity into an opportunity. When scoffed at by senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar about his humble background of helping at his father’s tea stall in growing up years, Team Modi came upon the idea of holding ‘charcha’ (dialogue) over steaming cups of hot tea.
Obviously, Modi had the advantage of mentoring a state that is known for the enterprising spirit of its people, and his record on human indices is still poor in the state, yet he seems to come across as the best bet in the current scenario.
What Modi has to deal with in terms of challenges at the moment is his taint of 2002 riots which refuses to go away despite a lower court’s clean chit. However much anguish he may express in his blog or sadbhavana fasts that he may do, Muslims are likely to vote against him. Also, he faces resistance from satraps of his own party. L K Advani, who still nurtures ambitions to be the prime minister despite his advanced age, had turned recalcitrant during the Goa conclave which was supposed to be the inauguration of sorts of Modi at the national level and as party’s PM in running. The sulking stalwart had quit from all party posts only to take back his resignations; in the bargain he only reduced his own stature.
There are plenty of others like him. Murli Manohar Joshi had been unwilling to vacate his Varanasi seat for Modi and Sushma Swaraj has been making her anger public through notorious tweets opposing party decisions to take back leaders like B Sriramulu in the fold. She famously told media persons that parliamentary board used to take decisions unanimously even when there were 2 MPs in the party, but was unaware how decisions were being made these days.
Modi is both autocratic and arrogant and would rub many the wrong ways because of his dictatorial high-handedness, but that is precisely what is making him look good to the public which is seeking a more authoritative prime minister than the incumbent Manmohan Singh, who is perceived to be a weakling, despite his fairly good economic track record.
The other problem that he may face is that of the BJP campaign peaking too early. And this is true to some extent. Because while BJP is still a favourite in opinion polls, Modi’s personal approval rating are down by 8-9%, as per a media survey.
There is also the danger of some friendly relations going sour with Baba Ramdev rethinking support to BJP, months and years after singing paeans of Modi. It’s another matter that Ramdev has taken a U-turn again and is ready to get pictures snapped with his arms around Modi.
What the BJP is leveraging really well, besides Modi crisscrossing the subcontinent, is social media, internet and promotion through mobile phones. There is a virtual army in place to keep the debate hardline right on web and in favour of Mr Modi. A company that specialises in big data has been put on rolls to target pro BJP supporters, so as to keep the flock together, and also to win over those who are generally non-BJP supporters but may be sitting on the fence this time. A swing of 10-15% in this category will virtually seal BJP’s victory, going by the fact that the Congress in 2009 had a high conversion ratio of vote share percentage and Lok Sabha seats.
The BJP would look to improve its current 18.8% vote share and repeat its best ever performance of 1998, when it had stormed heartland India winning handsomely in UP (52/80 - excluding the region that is now Uttarakhand), a success that it would want to replicate this time.