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India’s unknown king-makers

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In Brief

India is now preparing for its 16th general election, to be held in April or May, and it promises to be the most difficult yet to predict. India has had coalition governments for nearly two decades, and no single party will sweep the polls this time either. This is despite the hype surrounding Narendra Modi, from the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It will be a numbers game to decide the winners, and since neither national party is expected to gain a clear majority on its own, success will depend upon the allies they can marshal, before and — more importantly — after the poll.


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Much will depend on the growing role of regional parties, most of them currently confined to single states with little or no national influence. Recent surveys show they could win as many as 225 seats out of 545, making this disparate grouping the likely king-makers that are moving close to forging an ‘alternative’ or ‘third’ front, without the Congress and the BJP.

Another deciding factor will be India’s demographics: over 50 per cent of Indians are below the age of 25, and over 65 per cent are below 35. In recent years the young have had a strong voter turnout. They have shown a willingness to pursue their aspirations in the education and employment sectors, and they are less moved by narrow considerations of caste and creed. They have accepted freebies from politicians, and have yet rejected the same politicians at the ballot box.

Modi’s campaign focuses on development, employment and the need to improve infrastructure, which are attractive propositions for the young, and he has so far avoided raising contentious issues on the BJP’s agenda, like the building of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya, where a mosque stood until 1992.

Dictated mainly by the corporate and business class, the media commentary has been divided three ways. If Modi is leading with his aggressive oratory, Arvind Kejriwal has captured the popular imagination after becoming Delhi’s new chief minister in December 2013. His year-old Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) claims five million members and its leaders plan to double this number by the end of February. But however well meaning they may be, Kejriwal and his team are political novices, supported by the public because they are ‘different’. If the two main parties have taken decades to cause disenchantment, the AAP could take as many months. Emerging from behind in third place is the ruling Congress Party under the leadership of its vice president, Rahul Gandhi. It has just opened a Rs 5 billion (US$80 million) campaign (compared to BJP’s Rs four billion). The party that has ruled for over 50 of the 66 years since independence is not to be written off, despite widespread disenchantment among the urban middle class.

Allies will also prove crucial. Both the Congress and the BJP have proved adept at winning support. Despite adverse poll prospects, the Congress has allies within and outside the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which lost a score of allies after it fell from power in 2004, is trying to reach out. But Modi’s exclusivist image could prove an obstacle in the post-poll horse-trading. Still, Modi is leading the race. He has sought to undo his past record as the man on whose watch violence occurred in 2002, killing around 1000 people, mostly Muslims. His focus now is on development and projecting his achievements in his home state of Gujarat. He has received endorsement by the corporate sector and the urban middle class, and even the British began wooing him last year. The Americans, goaded by Indian Americans, may also be moving in that direction.

Moody’s Analytics has joined a string of foreign investors and observers in predicting pro-business policies and a positive turnover of the Indian economy should Modi win. Several economists, foreign brokerage firms and stock market players have also backed Modi’s style of governance. US investment bank Goldman Sachs has upgraded India’s rating to market weight from underweight based on its optimism for policy certainty post-elections. Japanese brokerage firm Nomura has said it expects a BJP-led coalition to form the next government, while Standard & Poor’s said it would review India’s rating after the 2014 national elections, but has sounded caution over the possibility of policy drift.

The question is whether these endorsements will influence the rural Indian voter. Pre-poll trends and surveys have predicted a win for the NDA — though well short of the 272 seats needed for a majority — leaving the UPA way behind, and giving a chunk of seats to regional parties and about 40 to the AAP. However, these polls reflect the sentiments of those active on social media (which connects barely 50–70 million people in India) and the conventional media. The ‘silent’ voter still forms the majority, and local issues still matter for an estimated 800 million people across the subcontinent. The party or alliance that wins will, hopefully, be the one that can offer an economic policy framework for the future. The platform that captures their imagination will command the coming decade.

Mahendra Ved is a New Delhi-based writer and columnist.

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