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India: A political script full of surprises
March 10, 2014, 8:56 am

In less than 30 days, India is to kick-start the largest democratic exercise in the world. An estimated 815 million people are registered to vote and this number will go up significantly as registration for fresh voters is still open. If the percentage of voters who turn out is anywhere near 2009 when national polls were last conducted – which was 58 per cent, it means that almost 472 million people will queue up in almost one million polling stations across the country over a five-week period in a staggering nine-phase elections. Polling is being conducted in a phased manner to enable the government to move security troops from one part to another for preventing violence, once the bane of Indian elections.

Young India Votes

Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man Party, leader and anti-graft activist Arvind Kejriwal, center, greet supporters during an election rally in Ahmadabad, India, Saturday, March 8, 2014 [AP]

Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man Party, leader and anti-graft activist Arvind Kejriwal, center, greet supporters during an election rally in Ahmadabad, India, Saturday, March 8, 2014 [AP]

In the five years since the previous poll, Indian voters have become significantly younger: 23 million of them are between 18 to 19 years of age constituting 2.88 per cent of voters, against 0.75 per cent in 2009. Much greater numbers of youth in the age group of 18 to 22 also get the voting right for the first time. In 2013, India’s population stood at 1.27 billion people of whom approximately 377 million lived in urban centres.

In urban India approximately 20 million voters will have the right to vote for the first time and this would have a significant impact because political parties will channelize energies of the youth to its benefit. This could be the most decisive factor against the incumbent Congress party as it has been beset by graft charges almost continually since 2010.

For the major part of their teenage years, Indian urban young voters grew up on a staple diet of charges and counter-charges against the central government. This is what the other two national claimants – the Hindu nationalist, Bharatiya Janata Party and the upstart Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man Party) are trying to capitalise on.

Regional parties in the driving seat?

There are other significant players also – strong provincial parties with influences limited to one or just a couple of states. Nitish Kumar, Bihar state chief minister, and Mayawati, a powerful political leader of India’s backward classes from the heartland state of Uttar Pradesh could play important roles in formation of government post polls. Together, the two states account for 120 seats of the 543 at stake in parliament.

Their role has to be factored because in almost two decades and five parliamentary polls, the two largest national level parties – Congress party and BJP, have not collectively won more than 300 odd of the 543 elective seats in Parliament. In terms of vote share, their collective strength has been less than 50 per cent. This indicates that parties which do not have a national foothold are major players not just during elections but also influence government formation and policy.

This is best evident in the fact that in the first election there were less than one hundred parties in the fray of which only one party was an effective party nationally. But by 2009, these numbers jumped to almost 400 parties with seven of them playing an effective role.

The electoral contests are also becoming tighter with the margin of victory or defeat becoming much smaller. Minor shifts in vote share have a huge impact in the final outcome.

In India, no single party has secured a majority on its own since 1984. This is why the party that has forged the best pre-poll alliances has emerged as the most successful one. In the 2014 election so far, the BJP did not attract many new allies till very recently while the Congress party lost several.

The new entrant Common Man Party argued that all political parties were from the same stable and equal partners in continuing with a corrupt political system. In view of this, the party is not attempting as yet to forge any alliances.

This ploy may work in significant parts of urban India. But chances of this being a success without a cadre – the party does not have this as it is barely a year old outfit – is highly unlikely. In such a situation, AAP’s best case scenario is to simultaneously turn a spoiler for the frontrunner the BJP led by aggressive Hindu nationalist leader, Narendra Modi and also try emerging as a modernised Congress.

Challenging the challenger: New anti-graft party takes on rising star Modi

The spotlight has so far clearly been on Modi because he has turned Indian politics upside down by aggressive advocacy of majoritarian policies. He does not talk eloquently about India’s pluralistic traditions and instead argues that the core of India’s nationhood is Hindu. He is alleged to have presided over controversial riots and has barricaded adequate investigations into it. He has dovetailed this sectarian approach into a pro-industry, infrastructure-intensive economic programme and seeks votes on the basis of marrying this with another key strength of his: efficient administration.

"The spotlight has so far clearly been on Modi because he has turned Indian politics upside down by aggressive advocacy of majoritarian policies," writes the right wing leader's biographer Mukhopadhyay [AP]

“The spotlight has so far clearly been on Modi because he has turned Indian politics upside down by aggressive advocacy of majoritarian policies,” writes the right wing leader’s biographer Mukhopadhyay [AP]

But his campaign has shown signs of strain in recent days, as it remains uni-focal in criticism directed at the Congress. Modi has failed to evolve a line of criticism directed at the new challenger, the Common Man Party. The party which was ignored by the two national parties in the state election in November last sprung a surprise by a creditable performance that saw the party even forming a local government for a short while. But AAP dramatically resigned from government and its leader, Arvind Kejriwal plunged into the parliamentary campaign.

He has repeatedly questioned Modi about development policies, issues of personal probity and links to the richest Indians. He has also challenged Modi into a direct electoral contest. The BJP leader’s refusal to take the bait did not help his cause.

Since 2004 the ruling Congress party pursued policies that meant a balancing act between economic liberalisation and social welfare programme on the lines that have been in the spotlight in other developing economies like Brazil. On paper each of these schemes, whether in regard to guaranteeing a minimum number of employment days in rural areas or for streamlining delivery mechanism of civic amnesties to urban poor, appear very sound. But the Congress has been plagued by governance deficit and charges of massive corruption.

India’s electoral campaign is expected to have several twists and dramatic moments. In a nutshell, the story so far revolved around the right-wing BJP leader Modi securing a clear head start over the ruling Congress but suddenly being pulled back by a rival who appeared from nowhere. Regional players have secure bastions but if winds of change begin to sweep some parts of India, there is no knowing if it will spread like wildfire or not. Like always, this will again be a political script full of surprises.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.