On the Forthcoming Indian General Elections 2014
By Maidul Islam
The 16th Lok Sabha election in India is going to be held in nine phases from 7th April to 12th May, 2014. Over 814 million registered voters will exercise their electoral franchise to elect 543 members to the lower house of the Indian parliament. The election results of the world’s largest democracy will be announced on 16th May. As things stand now, the Lok Sabha election in India is not a bipolar race between the key prime ministerial candidates of the leading national political alliances: Narendra Modi vs Rahul Gandhi, as sections of corporate media are trying to portray. Rather, this election is so far characterized by multiple political players contesting for an alternative to both the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Gandhi-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Various regional political parties are also fighting for a third political space in order to make their presence felt and be relevant to national politics. If the two major political alliances fail to get a simple majority of 272 seats in the Lok Sabha, it is this third political space which might emerge as a game-changer when it comes to forming the next government in New Delhi.
The possibility of such a fractured mandate and the emergence of a non-Congress and non-BJP front holding the balance to form the government cannot be overlooked. The BJP-led NDA is well aware that it is a marginal player in states like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and the North-East. These states comprise 189 seats in the Lok Sabha. In effect, the NDA will be banking on the remaining 354 seats of Northern and Western India to muster its 272 seat majority. This may not seem theoretically impossible but it is nonetheless a difficult task. For one, since Modi is backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) [National Volunteer Organization], a militant rightwing Hindutva nationalist group, and is also alleged to have perpetrated the state-sponsored genocide against religious minorities in Gujarat, the secular votes might consolidate in favour of the strongest candidate against the BJP or any other NDA candidate in northern and western India. This perceived threat to secularists and religious minorities may then call for tactical voting against the NDA. This sort of tactical voting means an anti-BJP consolidation behind the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh, the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi.
The NDA finds itself on more firm footing in states like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and Karnataka where there is a direct fight with the Congress-led UPA and where the non-Congress and non-BJP parties are relatively weaker. This can be attributed to the increasingly discredited nature of the UPA-II regime which was tainted with issues of inflation, corruption, inequality among the population, and a lack of clarity in policymaking. The regime was in stark contrast to its predecessor – the UPA-I government with an outside support of the Left Front – which had successfully blended neoliberal policies with a few social democratic measures as balms and doles to the poor in appeasement of the many legitimate grievances of the people against the government. Just months before the announcement of the 16th Lok Sabha elections, the UPA-II regime adopted certain social democratic policies like passing the National Food Security Bill and the anti-corruption Lok Pal Bill, often touted as policies that were not only products of hasty decisions in the final year of the government but also were ambiguous and lacking perspective. The UPA, therefore, lost its favour and with it the hope for any emphatic victory in the coming polls. In such a context, the danger of a takeover by a communal fascist force like the RSS-backed BJP with Modi at its helm is looming large in the states of northern and western India.
Apart from the pragmatics of the electoral number game, there is a normative objection to the politics practiced by the RSS-backed BJP. India is a country where secular values are deep-rooted with people coming from different religious backgrounds and even agnostics and atheists living together peacefully for centuries. In India, minority communal parties also do not have any major electoral support. In such a context, the RSS-backed BJP is an aberration to the secular-democratic fabric of India. The RSS has been charged with several accounts of the most horrendous communal crimes in India. It was the RSS activist, Nathuram Godse, who killed Mahatma Gandhi. It was the RSS and BJP activists that perpetrated the alleged state-sponsored genocide of Muslims in Gujarat. It was none other than the RSS and BJP activists who organized the Mumbai communal riots in December 1992 and January 1993. It was the same RSS and BJP activists that demolished the historic Babri mosque, a grotesque act that is comparable with the barbaric demolition of the Bamiyan Buddha statues by the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is the Bajrang Dal (an associate group of RSS) activist Dara Singh, who killed the Christian missionary, Graham Staines in Keonjhar (Odisha). The Indian Home Ministry recently released the names of ten ‘Hindutva terrorists’ based on the forensic evidence provided by the Indian intelligence that confirms the RSS links in various bomb explosion cases. The rise of the RSS backed BJP is not only a threat to the secular ethos of India but also a significant threat to the country’s religious minority populations such as Muslims and Christians.
On the other hand, Modi’s development agenda has roped in the support of big corporate houses and a section of the urban upper-middle classes. The backing of big capital for Modi is evident in the excessive display of money power and rampant use of costly advertisements, showcasing Modi and the so-called industrially developed state of Gujarat. However, Gujarat’s model of development remains seeped in paradoxes. While the industrially developed state yields high financial growth, its performance in terms of social indicators is lackluster; infamous for its rising inequality, poverty, and high infant mortality rate. Industrial growth through concessions to the rich, therefore, cannot be termed as development in the comprehensive sense of the term. Development in Gujarat is exclusively for the rich. On the other hand, while the BJP is hyperbolic on the corruption charges against the Congress, it avoids any discussion on the corrupt leaders of its own party. The BJP is silent on the corruption charges against ex-Karnataka chief minister, Bookanakere Siddalingappa Yeddyurappa. In other words, on the corruption issue, BJP has double standards and significant sections of the Indian people also equate BJP and Congress, breeding the same set of neoliberal economic policies that have exponentially increased economic inequalities, inflation, and corruption.
Therefore, today significant sections of the Indian population neither want a discredited Congress-led UPA, nor a communal-fascist BJP. At this moment, what India needs is a real non-Congress and non-BJP alternative, which will address the democratic demands of the people and will ensure greater autonomy and power to the states and regional parties. While in theory the Indian Constitution recognizes the federal principles, it certainly has a unitary bias towards a strong Centre. In this election, the issue of federalism and six decades of post-colonial history of discrimination by the Centre towards many states can be certainly foregrounded by myriad regional political players ranging from All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu, All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) in West Bengal, BSP in Uttar Pradesh, YSR Congress in Seemandhra, Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha, JD (U) in Bihar, Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka and several others.
The continuous decline of the Left Front may not make it a viable anchor for a non-Congress and non-BJP alternative as it had been during 1989-90 and 1996-98. In such a situation, the non-Congress and non-BJP parties might get united in the post-poll scenario in order to form an alternative government if the NDA fails in garnering its 272 seats majority. The existing political reality is that such an alternative government on the basis of a common minimum programme anchored around federal principles cannot be possible without the support of either the Congress or the BJP. Time will tell what eventually will be the outcome in the post-poll scenario. But one thing is clear. If non-Congress and non-BJP parties like the AIADMK, BJD, TMC, and BSP support a BJP-led NDA government as they had previously done in their electoral career, then they will certainly betray the cause, hope, and secular-democratic aspiration of many people including their own voters. If these non-Congress and non-BJP parties are able to muster 150 seats (certainly possible) and net the Congress to support such an alternative secular government, they will redeem themselves for their past association with the communal BJP.
Dr. Maidul Islam is an assistant professor in political science at Presidency University, Kolkata.