Indian elections ready to battle cliffhangers


Indian elections ready to battle cliffhangers
Indians are adept at voting differently in assembly and parliament elections

Irrespective of who heads the next government, India will march forward

By Dr. N. Janardhan

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Published: Sat 26 Jan 2019, 10:12 AM

Last updated: Sun 27 Jan 2019, 1:26 PM

It is wonderful that vibrant democracies breed aspiration, dejection and renewed anticipation among the voters, all between two election cycles. In India, these emotions have thrived since the build-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and will continue until the 2019 poll drama is done and dusted.

Predicting the endgame before the results are announced should be left to speculative and profiting bookies. In an era where surveys have failed miserably, political analysts would be better off reflecting ground realities and popular sentiments objectively rather than pitchforking ideology while deciphering poll outcomes. Since it is said that 'you get the leaders you deserve', for the people, for whom the election is a decisive voice, democracy will emerge the real winner, irrespective of the outcome.

As things are, the optimism of an emphatic victory whether in the opposition or in the ruling camps is misleading. The 2019 elections are sure to be a 20:20-like cliffhanger. All possibilities are open - opposition's victory, ruling alliance's return and even a Third Front cobbling together the numbers.
This cliffhanger scenario stems from the irony that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 283 seats with just 31 per cent of the total votes polled in 2014. In a first-past-the-post system, even a small percentage swing can dramatically twist the outcome.

Further, this analysis is rooted in two interrelated assumptions. One, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the BJP, has not only fallen short of fulfilling its pre-poll promises, but hurt the fabric of the 'idea' of India. Two, the opposition - the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) - led by the Congress, will not only oust the Narendra Modi government, but undo its 'misdeeds' too.

The failures and misdeeds of the current regime are many. First, it is a victim of tall promises that raised people's expectations to unreasonable levels. After winning a historic mandate, the government struggled to realise its 'rosy' 2014 manifesto. If it managed to achieve something, it still stands rightly accused of 'not having done enough'. Even where it dared to attempt out-of-the-box policies like demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax, their execution was inefficient.

Second, and more importantly, the government has been guilty of transgressing not only from its core agenda, but also peddling ideas and meddling in areas where it had no business venturing. These include lynching beef traders and eaters, accompanied by a campaign against 'love jihad', among others, that smack of communalism, leading to 'intolerance' and 'constitutional impropriety' charges.

Despite these gaps, here are five reasons why the jury is still out on the impending poll outcome.
First, the BJP/NDA's victory in 2014 was partly facilitated by the Congress/UPA's excesses and shortcomings during the 2004-2014 period. Has the combine, particularly the Congress, done enough to reinvent and repackage itself? Even if it has, it is yet to present its new agenda.

Second, Indians are adept at voting differently in assembly and parliament elections. To believe that the recent election results in the three Hindi heartland states are the way 2019 elections will pan out is not a certainty. Had the BJP won at least two of these state elections, it would have been complacent and taken the 2019 verdict for granted. Having lost all three, and with every BJP baiter writing its obituary, the party is likely to pull out all the stops.

Three, the question of leadership of any future formation is important, no matter how much it is brushed under the carpet. Had the Congress lost the three-state polls, it would have been more conciliatory towards allies and the question of Rahul Gandhi as prime minister would have been pushed to the backburner until after the Lok Sabha elections. With the Congress unseating the BJP in all three states, the leadership issue is already causing divisions among the opposition parties.

The Trinamool Congress, Telangana Rashtra Samithi, Biju Janata Dal, and Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party are not part of the Congress-led Mahagatbandhan (Grand Alliance). With their states accounting for nearly one-third of the parliament's seats, these parties are crucial in the formation of the next government. While some of them are staunch opponents of the BJP, a few others are keeping their cards close to their chest. Apart from becoming part of the Third Front, they could support either the UPA or the NDA.  

Given this lack of opposition unity, it is possible that if Modi cannot be prime minister again, the BJP may ensure that Gandhi does not get that post either. It is possible that a Third Front, supported by the Congress (to keep Modi out) or even the BJP (to keep Gandhi out), maybe the ultimate beneficiary like in the past.

Four, good or bad governance, chor (thief) or chowkidar (guard), Modi is an expert at playing the 'victim' card and is bound to bowl political googlies during his campaigns. Again, good or bad, the 10 per cent job quota for the economically weak, relief for small businesses and the impending agricultural relief package and Universal Basic Income plans could still help pull things back for the BJP.

Five, like the BJP's 'Rahul bashing' helped him stage a comeback from "Pappu to PM wannabe', Congress' 'Modi bashing' may also help him regain lost ground. For all those talking about Nitin Gadkari and others as alternatives if the BJP falls short of a majority, it is worth revisiting the Modi-L.K. Advani saga even when the party won a majority in 2014 under Modi's stewardship.

Amid all these possibilities, what about the larger issues of India's economic and foreign policies?
It is often joked that the Indian economy grows at night, when the government is asleep! Its GDP has grown eight times since 1991 to reach about $2.6 trillion in 2018 and India is expected to become part of the top five club in 2019. India's foreign policy too has remained fairly consistent for more than 25 years under various regimes, differing more in importance than in basics.

Thus, irrespective of who heads the next government, there are unlikely to be any major surprises to worry about. India will march forward.

Dr. N. Janardhan is a UAE-based political analyst.
Dr. N. Janardhan is a UAE-based political analyst.

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