India: Federal Elections – The Feel Good Factor vs Dynasticitis

2004

Rakesh Ahuja

(Part One of a Two Part Series on the Indian Elections.)

The 13th Lok Sabha (People’s House) was dissolved on 6 February 2004. Nearly 700 million voters will go to polls in five phases late April-early May to elect the new House.

Lok Sabha’s premature dissolution, six months before the end of its constitutional life, was not unexpected. Speculation had been rife since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has led the ruling 23-member National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition for five years, won convincing victories in three states last December. That suggested a reversal of the tide of seeping support in recent years at the regional level.

But the most important calculation in calling earlier elections was the perception that economic and social indicators, tangible and intangible, favoured the BJP and its partners. The Government has neatly packed these under the ubiquitous slogans of the ‘feel-good factor’ and ‘India Shining’.

This feel-good factor may well be a WMD - weapon of mass deception. After all, this largely urban phenomenon has hardly touched the vast proportion of the population. Nonetheless, it is not entirely a myth.

The economy is cruising. The GDP growth is forecast at 7.5-8.1 per cent and the per capita income increase at 6.6 per cent, underpinned by strong performance in most economic sectors. Improving productivity and innovative impulse have allayed fears of the country’s capability to meet the challenge of integration with the global economy. India has accumulated US$109 billion in foreign exchange reserves – a far cry from 1991 when it had to mortgage its gold reserves to pay for immediate imports.

While foreign policy issues have limited drawing power in Indian elections, the state of relations with Pakistan, China and the US has resonance across the electoral landscape. India has developed a ‘strategic relationship’ with the US. Sino-Indian relations have never been better. Above all, Prime Minister Vajpayee is credited with engineering a substantive thaw with Pakistan, which holds prospects for resolving decades-old bilateral disputes.

On the social front, fluidity is emerging in voting patterns among traditional ‘vote banks’ based on religion and disadvantaged castes. They have consistently been the preserves of the opposition Congress Party and other groupings opposed to BJP’s upper caste bias. But apparently, the BJP is no longer as untouchable for backward castes as it once was. A few iconic Muslim personalities are also defying possible charges of heresy to move tentatively in the BJP’s direction.

The BJP’s electoral strategy is to turn the elections into a Presidential contest between the Prime Minister and Congress leader, Mrs Sonia Gandhi. Vajpayee, 79, has untainted nationwide recognition after fifty years on the Indian political stage. He has led a cumbersome coalition to full term, providing political stability and economic predictability. His moderation has tempered the extreme edges of Hindu cultural nationalism.

In contrast, eight years in opposition, the Congress Party has clung stubbornly to motherhood slogans of the past, failing to formulate policies for a society vastly different from the one it ruled for over four decades. Mrs Gandhi has no record of governance. More significantly, she is beleaguered by her ‘foreign origin’ branding.

It is no surprise that the Grand Old Party is harking back to its one and only unique selling point – the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty. Nehru’s great grand children have been inducted into the election campaign to augment the credentials of the Mother and the Party. Internally undemocratic, the Congress Party gives the unmistakable impression of suffering the malaise of dynasticitis.

That said, it would be premature to write off the 119 year old party. It is the only party with a pan-India base. The Indian electorate has a long-standing predilection for throwing out incumbents at Federal, State and local levels. Congress has consistently out-polled the BJP in nationwide elections – last time in 1999, when it garnered 28 per cent of the vote to the BJP’s 24 per cent. Mrs Gandhi’s gender pull as a widow and mother of Indian born should also not be underestimated.

Moreover, Mrs Gandhi could play the renunciation card. She could renounce the Prime Minister’s mantle while remaining Congress President. There are precedents for the bifurcation of these roles between the Parliamentary and Executive wings of the party. That would take the sting out the antagonistic ‘foreign born’ campaign being successfully waged by her opponents.

WATCHPOINT: Will Mrs Gandhi renounce the Prime Ministership and, thus, the ability to exercise overt power?

 

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