The Indian General election continues to be the giant spectacle of democracy as a nation of close to two billion people chooses their new leader. It will hold the sub-continent’s attention for most of this year. Campaigning started in January, and results will be announced in end of May.
At the eve of the elections the ruling Bhartiya Janata party (BJP) seems to be losing its grip on the ballot. It faces a formidable challenge from a young candidate of India’s oldest party, the Indian National Congress (INC). The last elections were all about Narendra Modi, who won a massive victory and went on to complete his full term. This is perhaps the first election in which INC leader Rahul Gandhi has emerged as a serious contender. The main contest for the Prime Minister’s position is between these two.
No work and more taxes. While travelling in India, in the months before the elections, it was easy to deduce that the main election issues this time are unemployment and the imposition of a new tax called the Goods and Services Tax (GST). While unemployment has reached 6.1 percent in 2017-18, the highest in 45 years, the government is busy denying it. One of Narendra Modi’s promises in the 2014 elections was that he will generate employment for young Indians. This has not happened. On the other hand, the GST finished off small businesses by reducing their profit margin. The result is frustration among many voters.
A Grand Alliance of regional parties led by West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, has formed to challenge the BJP. This alliance is somewhat aligned with the Congress, as it has many parties which are headed by former Congress members. In Uttar Pradesh, The alliance parties of Samajwadi party and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samajwadi Party, are almost certain to overthrow sitting BJP chief minister Yogi Adityanath.
Modi regained his composure in his election campaign just before the elections. After losses in state elections, in which several of his chief ministers lost power. The BJP lost the legislative assembly elections in big states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, earlier in the year. The ruling party no longer looks invincible.
Indian elections are known to be notoriously difficult to predict. This year it got more difficult with 2293 parties contesting.
The main question remains, ‘Will Modi stay?’ instead of who will replace him. From the pre-poll predictions it would seem that BJP could win with a small majority. If that happens, Modi will undoubtedly be the Prime Minister, regardless of the power sharing equation with other parties.
The Congress’s case is not so simple. While Rahul Gandhi will be the PM candidate if the INC gets a clear majority, it seems more likely that Gandhi will have to convince alliance partners to let him lead the government. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance lost key partners and some reputed faces.
Hindi Film actor Shatrughan Sinha, an active campaigner for BJP, and a Member of Parliament, switched over to the Congress to contest the 2019 polls. Though there are many MPs changing sides, the tide seems to be in Congress’s favour.
Problems for the ruling party. BJP’s woes increased with the death of Manohar Parrikar, the chief minister of Goa, in March this year. He was a recognised face of the BJP. Other than Modi, few charismatic leaders remain in BJP, and it made a difference in the campaign trail.
Farmers protested throughout the Modi regime by taking out silent marches in protest against low crop procurement rates. They have asked that their loans be waived. Farmers in Tamil Nadu faced severe water shortage because of less rainfall, which resulted in crop failures. Mounting debts lead to many farmers killing themselves. So far, Modi has suggested the short-term measure of giving money to farmers in distress.
However, the amount promised is too less for farmers to sustain their lands, let alone pay off their loans. A lot of rural, agrarian votes slipped out of BJP’s hands. When the farmers marched in the cities, many urban Indian became aware of their plight. The Indian television media is forever in a loud, race-to-the-bottom contest with sponsored opinions and distractions such as Bollywood and Cricket. Therefore, it does not talk much about depressing topics such as farmers suicide. Farmers had to take it on themselves to spread the word, which they did. Many urban Indians joined them in their protest when they marched through Delhi and Bombay (Mumbai).
The 7.8 billion euro Rafale deal, in which India purchased 36 twin-engine fighter jets from France, is another weapon for the Congress. The opposition has alleged that France’s Dassault Aviation was favoured and procedure was bypassed so that the French firm gets the deal. The opposition alleged that the price of each aircraft became double than what was initially agreed upon. French government officials have rejected allegations of violation of procurement procedures.
The demonetisation debacle is also well-remembered by the voters. Overnight, Modi government declared currency notes of 500 and 1000 rupees as redundant, forcing Indians to queue for newly printed cash outside. This was done to remove black money from the system as the government thought tax defaulters hoarded their unpaid dues in huge amounts of cash. A photograph of an old Indian man, crying in the lines as he begged onlookers to help him exchange his notes, went viral.
Demonetisation failed in all its goals so badly that even the government has stopped mentioning it.
The ban on slaughtering cows in BJP-ruled states lead to Hindu vigilantes lynching Muslim cattle traders. This ban also affected the leather goods industry. Those who suffered job losses have nothing nice to say about the BJP.
The cult of Narendra Modi. Many BJP followers are still all praise for Modi. A year ago, they would attack anyone who criticised the Modi regime online. The term for such BJP followers is Bhakt (devotee). A true devotee cannot hear the criticism of his idol. This is applicable to many BJP voters too.
Jitendra Naik, 44, is a pilot with a commercial Indian airline and lives in suburban Bombay. He says, “Nobody wants Congress. Opposition is not disciplined. Businessmen will vote for Modi.”
Naik concedes that Uttar Pradesh may not be won again by the BJP. He also complains that his airline has not paid his salary for four months. Later in the conversation, Naik admits his “acche din are over“. Acche din means good days and was one of BJP’s slogan in 2014 elections.
BJP’s agenda for returning to power is nationalism and stability. In this quest it was somewhat helped when terrorists in Kashmir carried out a suicide attack and killed 40 security personnel early this year. For the first time in decades, India responded by carrying out airstrikes on Pakistan. Many Indians believe this was an adequate response given Pakistan’s record of harbouring terrorists including India’s enemy, and terror outfit Jaish-e-Muhammad’s chief, Hafeez Saeed. As long as Pakistan protects Islamic terrorists, and China blocks efforts in the United Nations to designate Hafeez Saeed as a global terrorist, Modi will have a legitimate following.
Missing development. Issues such as environment are mainly absent in the party agendas. Rahul Gandhi tweeted about a need to “restore” water bodies and, “regenerate and afforest wasteland and degraded land.” He added, “We will employ lakhs of rural youth in our gram sabhas (village meetings) to improve the environment.” What these youths will do is not clear.
Political parties make noises on social media that they are concerned about the environment. This concern rarely translates to action except when there is money to be made by giving out mining contracts to multinationals. Then Indian politicians become such staunch environmentalists that they have to be paid huge sums to pass tenders. This behaviour is noted by young voters who are more environmentally savvy than their previous generations when it comes to the ballot.
Lack of infrastructure in cities is a huge issue.
The tragedy at Elphistone Road train station in Central Bombay last year is a case in point. 23 people were killed when a stampede broke out as four trains arrived at the same time. Another 39 people were injured as many slipped because it was raining at the time. This tragedy could be averted by building better and bigger bridges. It would also help if railway officials and municipalities would stop turning foot over bridges into open markets which exploited hawkers to sell their wares so that they can pay bribes to officials.
There are no signs of that corruption ending anytime soon. The ruling government’s only contribution since has been to change the name of Elphinstone Road to Prabhadevi. Changing names of stations and cities is much easier than building infrastructure and employing better railway technicians. In Delhi, the urban-centric Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will give a tough contest to the BJP, and elsewhere in urban India, BJP has lost favour except among a few industrialists and businessmen.
Modi will have an uphill task returning as prime minister. For the first time, Rahul Gandhi has a decent chance, as he is increasingly being seen as a leader by voters. The Grand Alliance is the kingmaker, and may throw up a prime ministerial candidate of its own. The election games have begun.