India: No Clear Party Favorite as the National Polls Open

Congress Party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi (L) arriving with his mother and Congress President Sonia Gandhi (R) to file his nomination papers for the Amethi parliamentary constituency in Sultanpur on Apr. 4. (Photo: Praskash Singh / AFP-Getty Images)

Hate speeches, candidates declaring huge, unprecedented amounts of money and property, friends turned adversaries turned friends, breaking of alliances, and unbridled promises are some of the things that 714 million voters are being assaulted with each day, with major issues like terrorism, the economic meltdown, rising prices and job losses being sidelined as India goes to the polls from Apr. 16 — May 13. New members will be elected to the 545-member Lok Sabha (the lower house of parliament) for five-year terms. There are dire predictions that the country could be heading for a weaker and perhaps short-lived coalition government, with major national parties losing out to regional allies.

With nearly 43 million first-time voters above the age of 18 joining the Electoral College, the coming national poll was widely expected to bring in a major paradigm change in the manner the world looked at India. But instead of debating about the issues confronting the nation and how to get out of the economic morass, the political parties are using all means to win power by dividing and polarizing the electorate on grounds of caste and religious differences.

No clear winners or trends are yet to be noticed, with a lack of "Hawa" (wave). With the political scene splintered, guessing the final outcome has become hazardous game with analysts predicting that it will once again be a fractured verdict giving way to horse-trading and jockeying for ministerial posts in a coalition government.

India's grand old Congress Party, which is currently heading the United Progressive Allliance (U.P.A.) ruling coalition, and the main oppisition Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.) won just over 50 percent of the vote between them in the 2004 elections. If both the mainline parties fare badly, the next prime minister may surface from negotiations after the vote, with horse-trading and backroom deals between the national and regional parties. "With post-poll alliances, the ball is in the court of middlemen," wrote Yogendra Yadav, a Senior Fellow at Center for Study of Developing Societies, in The Hindu newspaper.

Analysts say a new coalition without a strong Congress or B.J.P. could last just two years, as happened in 1996 when 13 parties won power and fell after two years, and two prime ministers, later.

Rahul Gandhi, the 38-year old rising star in Congress, is known to have indicated that his party has a hard and tough road to power and now has the opportunity and time to revamp the party in populous states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to win the next elections if and when the upcoming government falls. The two heartland zones account for 120 seats in Parliament.

The left-leaning Congress Party has been in power, or in coalition, for most of the time since India won independence from British colonial rule in 1947. India's first democratic exercise began in 1952.

The Congress has been losing allies, as many regional groups have distanced themselves from a party that they see as out of touch after decades of dominating India's political landscape. The regional groups, which reflect local aspirations for power and prestige, feel threatened and thwarted living under the shadow of the 135-year old party.

The B.J.P. is also struggling, mainly due to its divisive policies over religion and Muslim-bashing. A Third Front, consisting of regional parties led by the Communists, has added to the dispersal of political forces of the two main groupings.

As the elections draw near, there have been a few honest admissions by politicians about their party's chances.

B.J.P. leader Sushma Swaraj, for instance, has acknowledged that the National Democratic Alliance (N.D.A.), led by her party, will not get a majority. She, however, believes that it will be able to secure the support of a few allies to cross the crucial halfway point of 272 MPs.

Like her, Prakash Karat of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (C.P.I.-M) has conceded that the so-called Third Front favored by the Left may have to depend on the Congress to form a government. His choice of the Congress is surprising considering that he spearheaded a bitter campaign against the Manmohan Singh government on the India-United States nuclear deal and tried to topple it in Parliament by lining up with the B.J.P. last year. But, as is known, there are no permanent friends or foes in politics; only permanent interests.

The current campaign has seen the resurgence and assertion of regional parties to call the shots, with national parties like the Congress and the B.J.P. losing their once prime positions. Regional satraps like Lalu Prasad of Rashtriya Janata Dal, Mulayam Singh Yadav of Samajwadi Party and Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party have forced the erstwhile main players to play a second fiddle in seat allocations.

The aim of the Congress and the B.J.P. is to emerge as the single largest party in the next Lok Sabha, with the aim to form the next government so that they may attract regional parties to their fold by offering plum posts and offices. But this has not stopped new political alliances competing with each other in a brazen manner to keep their options open in a post-election scenario. While continuing to be partner in the U.P.A., Pawar has addressed a rally with Biju Janata Dal and Left, both opposed to the Congress, in a rally in Orissa. The halfway mark to attain majority in the Lok Sabha is 272.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has indicated that the Congress was open to do business with leaders like Lalu, Mulayam and even perhaps the Communist-Marxists after the elections. Lalu Yadav and Mulayam Singh have reciprocated Singh's call by saying that they endorse Manmohan Singh's leadership as prime minister.

A senior minister indicated that the post-election scenario will be like the players being auctioned and bought by the English Premier Football League, with all up for grabs.

What has left the electorate numb is the use of crass language by the politicians to communally charge the atmosphere, which has become the key agenda of parties. If the B.J.P.'s first-time candidate Varun Gandhi, son of former minister Maneka Gandhi and grandson of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, allegedly made unwholesome remarks against Muslims to consolidate Hindu votes in the Pilibhit constituency in Uttar Pradesh state, his opponents are using the same route.

Railway Minister Lalu Prasad ploughed into the controversy by asserting: "If I were the home minister, I would have driven a road roller over his chest." He also dared the administration to arrest him, knowing that any punitive action against him would only help embellish his image as a "champion of minorities." Muslims account for over 12 percent of India's total population of more than 1.25 billion. The Muslim community's presence is strong in Jammu and Kashmir, and it will sway results in many constituencies in Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

The Congress Party, too, is a party in this dangerous game. Andhra Pradesh Congress unit president D. Srinivas told an election rally in Nizamabad, a city in southern India, that: "I will sever the hands of those who point a finger at minorities."

The independent Election Commission, which has won high praise all over the world for the orderly manner in which it conducts elections to Parliament and various state legislatures, does not have punitive powers to punish those who deliberately flare-up communal flames, which encourages the leaders to stray from the model code of conduct. It can only direct the local administration to file charges against deviant politicians.

The main political parties are talking tough on terror in the run-up to the general elections, vowing to crack down on extremist violence in the wake of the deadly Mumbai attacks. The Congress says it is the only credible party able to unite the country to deal with the "scourge of terrorism" that it says is spreading across South Asia.

"We are in the middle of a ring of fire," Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said recently. He guaranteed that the security of every Indian citizen would be the party's "mission number one" if returned to power .

The B.J.P. has described Congress' record on fighting extremism as "a nightmare" that has left the country "helpless in the face of terror."

Another issue that has come as an eye-opener for the voters is the manner in which the wealth of politicians has gone up over the years. A glance at the numbers will show that in some cases it has been a quantum jump, and in others the figures have risen by as much as 500 percent. This is in a nation where 53 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Although inflation has fallen to 0.26 percent, the people's buying capacity is down, with job losses and prices of essential goods remaining high.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for M.G. Srinath.