Indian faces a critical general election? By Gurharpal Singh

By Gurharpal Singh|April 9, 2014|General|

As the world’s largest democracy goes to the polls, the question everyone is asking is who will lead a nation of 1.2 billion after 16th May 2014. According to opinion polls, the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is unlikely to be returned to power, with Congress recording its lowest ever tally of seats in parliament. After a decade in government, under the leadership of Dr. Manmohan Singh, the UPA’s achievements have been overshadowed by widespread public anger against massive political corruption, high levels of inflation, and political drift which has characterised the government since 2012. The price of onions, a staple diet in Indian food, and a good barometer of political fortunes, has long been against the UPA. Even the induction of Rahul Gandhi as the Prime Minster elect has failed to inspire the electorate.

The political wave – if there is a one – appears to be in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its coalition partners in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, who has cut his teeth as a foot soldier of the Hindu Right, does not come from the patrician wing of the movement.  He has been doing his best to make virtues of his humble origins in a political establishment dominated by the anglicised elite.  So far he has skilfully deflected the fire of his opponents   concerning his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots by using development as his key election agenda. This week however the ideological mask slipped, with the Election Commission charging his lieutenant, Amit Shah, for inciting hatred against a minority community; and on the day voting commenced, the BJP finally produced its manifesto, pledging to revise India’s nuclear doctrine of no first use.

Seasoned observers of Indian politics will probably caution against opinion polls. The Indian electorate has a habit of throwing up surprise.  The polls were wrong in 2002.  Although the Congress is unlikely to return to power, the many regional parties, which are the real brokers in India today, might yet cobble together a Third Front to frustrate the BJP.  Some parleys among these parties took place before the campaign started, but  nothing concrete has materialised to capture the imagination. The Third Front, if does emerge, is likely to remain a coalition of convenience of parties without a national following.

There is still over a month before the polling is over and election campaign could yet become more animated, especially if the contest appears close. Certainly the exchanges between the main parties have become much more acrimonious in the last few days with allegations and counter-allegations of dirty tricks.

So what kind of changes in Indian politics can we look forward to after May the 16th?

If the BJP comes close to winning an overall majority in 545-seat parliament, these elections could change the landscape of Indian politics for ever.  A  Modi led BJP/NDA government is likely to be more strident, vocal and India-first administration. If the experience of the previous BJP/NDA administration is anything to go by, it will place cultural nationalism at the heart of its agenda, whatever the compromises with the regional parties over Jammu and Kashmir, Ajodhya, and a uniform civil code. In foreign affair the rhetoric of talking tough will be matched by a more forthright approach towards Pakistan – at time when considerable effort has been expended to build a détente – a faceoff with China over the long and disputed border, which might also lead to a hefty hike on defence expenditure, and a more assertive posture vis-à-vis India’s other neighbours (Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh).  While corporate India appears to be welcoming Modi with open arms, in economic policy the push towards second and third generation of economic reforms is likely to be moderated by the agenda of controlling the cultural fallout from further uncontrolled economic liberalisation.  For those nations, like the UK, seeking to do business with India, such an administration might be a mixed blessing.

A Third Front government is unlikely to survive very long. Again, going by experience, such administration last about two years and are accompanied by chronic instability and economic crises. In many ways, a non UPA or NDA government is the least desirable outcome the Indian economy needs right now as it recovers from low growth, high inflation and a chronic balance of payments deficit.

Finally, the elections are likely to be followed closely by British Asians, notably the Indian-born generation, for whom politics often remains the main subject of conversation.  Importantly this time, however, given the sizeable Gujarati community based in the United Kingdom, the election of  Modi is likely to have profound implications for intra-Asian community relations  as his opponents will no doubt want to draw attention to his record as Chief Minister of Gujarat.

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About Gurharpal Singh

Gurharpal Singh Is Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He is a political scientist specialising on Indian politics.