General Election

A political watershed

Print edition : April 04, 2014

Rahul Gandhi, Congress vice-president, meeting rickshaw pullers in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, on March 1. Photo: Jitendra Prakash /REUTERS

Narendra Modi, the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, at the "hunkar rally" in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, on March 3. Photo: PTI

Chief Election Commissioner V.S. Sampath, flanked by Election Commissioners H.S. Brahma and S.N.A. Zaidi, addressing the media in Guwahati on March 12. Photo: ritu raj konwar

The elections to the 16th Lok Sabha are being held at a time when Indian democracy is at a crossroads, and some palpable trends hint at a complete rout of the Congress.

EVEN before India entered 2014, it was evident that one of the most crucial public concerns during the year would be over the state of its polity. This was not only because the country was to witness the quinquennial general election but also because the qualitative dimensions of the run-up to the parliamentary elections were marked by unique twists and turns. Cumulatively, these dimensions raised a number of questions about the future of India as a democracy. These questions covered a number of diverse yet related themes. These included the overall credibility of the political leadership, corruption in high places and its connection to crony capitalism, the stability of the government and its relation to development, the threats to the country’s secular fabric posed by certain political outfits and individual leaders, and the sway of identity politics pursued on the basis of communal, caste and regional agendas.

All these themes and their manifestations have been brought into heightened focus with the announcement of the Lok Sabha election schedule on March 5. The schedule, drawn up by the Election Commission of India (ECI), is the longest in the history of Indian elections. The voting will be held in nine phases starting April 7 and will conclude on May 12. The counting of votes will take place on May 16 and the results will be announced on the same day. This unprecedented multiple-phase schedule reflects the key polity-related issues collectively and in some areas severally.

The announcement to hold the elections was preceded and followed by a number of political twists and turns in different parts of the country, ranging from Bihar to Haryana to Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. In Bihar, the Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP) led by former Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan ended its long association with the Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and joined hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the proclaimed bête noire of the LJP for more than a decade. A similar shift in alliance was witnessed in Andhra Pradesh when the N. Chandrababu Naidu-led Telugu Desam Party (TDP) managed to strike an alliance with the BJP. In Tamil Nadu, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa broke her recently formed alliance with the Left parties-led Alternative Front and decided to go it alone. Developments in Haryana, including the defection of certain politicians close to Congress Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda to the BJP, have caused heartburning and rumblings in the saffron party.

All these developments reflect several aspects of the larger political trends that hold sway in the country. Many political observers are in agreement that four palpable trends add to the uniqueness of the coming elections. The first is the unmistakable collapse of the country’s oldest party, the Congress, and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by it after two uninterrupted terms in office. The coalition had come to power in unexpected circumstances in 2004 and returned to office with a bang five years later. Both times it disproved predictions by political pundits and emerged victorious. But in 2014, it requires no clairvoyance to say that the party of Independence is on its way out. The corruption scandals that have beset the Congress and the stories of its ineptitude and inefficiency have spread so far and wide that it will be difficult for it to escape defeat.

The second palpable trend is related to the rise of the BJP under Narendra Modi on the twin planks of development and Hindutva consolidation. The party and its prime ministerial candidate, along with the larger Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, have managed to sell this combined agenda effectively across large parts of the country, by highlighting the so-called development of Gujarat under Modi as well as by whipping up Hindutva emotions on various counts. Indications are that the party is set to record an all-time high score in terms of seat and vote share. If its calculations prove right, it will make history of sorts and that will mark a big leap forward for the Sangh Parivar and its political plans for the country. The third palpable trend is in the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has emerged as a challenge to both the Congress and the BJP and has, in the process, altered the political discourse in the country. The manner in which the AAP has brought up issues of concern to the people, linked corruption in high places to crony capitalism, and adopted a new style of functioning by seeking to do away with ostentation and political obnoxiousness, is central to the new directions in political discourses. Many established politicians and parties were forced to follow suit, the list ranging from Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje of the BJP to Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy of the Congress.

The fourth palpable trend is the persistence of several regional parties of the non-Congress, non-BJP variety in guarding their respective strongholds. These include the Uttar Pradesh-based Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the Bihar-based Janata Dal (United), the AIADMK, the Odisha-based Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the Andra Pradesh-based YSR Congress, and the West Bengal-based Trinamool Congress. The Left parties, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (CPI), which have a significant presence in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, had sought to bring these parties, barring the Trinamool Congress and the YSR Congress, under the banner of an alternative front. But the coming together has not taken off electorally as the parties have failed to reach a cohesive and comprehensive understanding.

These trends are going to play out with varied impact over the next two and a half months leading to the formation of a new government at the Centre. The final contours of the verdict will certainly depend on how these trends impact the electorate in different parts of the country and on the scale and amplitude of that impact. While it is indeed difficult to predict the magnitude of this impact, expectations in the political class as well as among observers is that the 2014 elections will mark a watershed in the country’s polity.

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