India’s Election: Beyond Modi vs Gandhi

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India’s Election: Beyond Modi vs Gandhi

The polls show Narendra Modi with a clear lead. But India’s electoral calculations are not so simple.

On May 22, India’s ruling coalition, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), celebrated the fourth anniversary of its government and the completion of its ninth straight year in power.

With little achievement to its credit – not only has it failed to address the agrarian crisis or revive a sluggish economy but this government has also been described as India’s most corrupt since independence – and its prospects in the 2014 general election bleak at best, political commentators questioned whether the UPA should be celebrating at all.

As the UPA begins its tenth year at the helm, its stock with the people has dipped to an all-time low. Several opinion surveys conducted in recent weeks predict a UPA defeat if general elections were held now.

True, the surveys reveal that the Congress’ losses would not translate automatically into gains for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with smaller regional parties expected to be the main beneficiaries. But the BJP – or at least those sections that support Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi – can draw some satisfaction from the results of the opinion polls. The surveys are unanimous in declaring Modi to be the most popular prime ministerial candidate in the country. For instance, the CNN-IBN poll reveals that 38% of urban voters prefer Modi over incumbent Manmohan Singh (13%) and Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi (14%).

In fact, the surveys predict that Modi will improve the electoral prospects of the BJP and the coalition it leads – the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).  “Only Narendra Modi can deliver them within striking distance of power in Delhi,” observes R Jagannathan in Firstpost.com.

Modi has been Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat since 2001. In December last year, he led the BJP to its fourth consecutive win in the state.  Emboldened by that emphatic mandate in his home state, Modi turned his eyes towards Delhi, the Indian capital. He is clearly eyeing the prime minister’s job.

But Modi’s ambitions have been under attack, not just from secular India but from within his party. Several BJP leaders are uncomfortable with his abrasive style and see him as a liability in a general election.  Some of the BJP’s allies threatened to quit the NDA if Modi is projected as the alliance’s prime ministerial candidate in General Election-2014. Their opposition stems from their unease with Modi’s alleged role in communal violence, which could cost them the votes of Muslims.

In 2002, Gujarat was engulfed in communal violence. Over a thousand people, mostly Muslims, were killed, raped or injured. The violence was unleashed by mobs that included many members of the Sangh Parivar, a family of Hindu right-wing organizations of which the BJP is a part.  Ministers in Modi’s government are alleged to have orchestrated the violence and incited crowds to attack Muslims and Modi himself is believed to have told a meeting of police officials that Hindus should be allowed to vent their anger (over the burning of a train at Godhra which resulted in the death of 53 Hindus) against Muslims. In the 12 years since that carnage, Modi has never accepted responsibility or shown the slightest remorse for the horrific violence.

Starting early this year, the Indian media has been describing the 2014 general elections as an epic battle between two personalities: Modi and Rahul Gandhi.

The two are polar opposites. A scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Rahul’s political lineage is unmatchable. His great-grandfather, grandmother and father were prime ministers. His mother Sonia, the Congress Party President and chairperson of the UPA, is arguably the most powerful person in India.

Rahul is often described as the Congress’ yuvraj or “crown prince.” The prime ministership is seen as his natural inheritance. Yet he has repeatedly claimed that he is not interested in becoming prime minister. He would much rather work to rejuvenate the party, he says, and to build its grassroots support.

Modi has often mocked Rahul as a child of privilege, someone who was “born with a golden spoon.” Unlike Rahul, Modi comes from a family of moderate means and had to work his way up the hierarchy of the Sangh Parivar. Having served as Gujarat’s chief minister for over a decade, he would like to serve “Mother India” now, he says.

Drawing attention to their personalities, eminent journalist Dilip Padgaonkar, who is seen to be sympathetic to the Congress, says: “Both men are aloof. While Modi's aloofness has a touch of arrogance to it, that of Rahul reeks of shyness. The former's demeanour signals overbearing self-confidence; that of the latter reveals shades of vulnerability. One is authoritative, stern, pugnacious, decisive and domineering; the other, modest, sober, hesitant and, above all, eager to play the Good Samaritan.”

Although Rahul has been in active politics for over a decade now, he has little administrative experience, having repeatedly rejected ministerial assignments in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet. Many have criticized this reluctance to take on ministerial position as shirking responsibility. Critics say he has no vision, no plan or agenda for India.

In administrative experience, then, Modi scores emphatically over Rahul. He has headed the government in Gujarat for over a decade and likes to remind listeners that he brought prosperity and development to the state. Indeed, Gujarat’s economy has been growing steadily, and Modi has an image of a clean and efficient administrator. However, critics point out that Modi has simply built on development achieved in previous decades, that his development model is pro-rich and excludes minorities and rural Gujaratis, and that while the economy is booming, the status of women, children and religious minorities is appalling.

Modi is a deeply polarizing figure, easily among India’s most controversial. His perceived arrogance and authoritarian manner is despised by many Indians, who are repelled by what they see as a chest-thumping, aggressive Hindu nationalism. Yet he is also admired by many, especially “those who buy into his development mantra, those who prefer a strong authoritarian leader, and those who favour a strong Hindutva line,” according to senior associate editor of The Hindu, Mukund Padmanabhan. These are more likely to be urban Indians.

While he has shown that he can win elections in his home state Gujarat, whether he can impress voters elsewhere in India remains to be seen. In the recent election to the Karnataka state assembly for instance, the “Modi magic” did not work. He was unable to save the ruling BJP in that state from being booted out of power.

Moreover, it is rural India that accounts for most of India’s electorate and here Modi has failed to strike a chord with voters.  While he has successfully wooed voters in Gujarat, convincing the rest of India, especially rural India will not be easy.

But trying to predict the outcome of India’s parliamentary elections by comparing its prime ministerial candidates is flawed. India’s general elections are far too complex to be reduced to a contest between two personalities. This is not a presidential election but an election to parliament, one that will see multifarious contests in which thousands of candidates  and political parties will butt heads for 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house.

Who will form the next government will be determined not so much by who is leading the campaign or who is being projected as the prime ministerial candidate as it is by calculations of caste and community, alliance arithmetic and a host of other factors.  Regional parties could hold the key to who will rule India after the 2014 electoral battle.

Some in Congress are wondering whether Rahul is the right person to take on Modi. Should the Congress front its campaign with a more aggressive leader? Perhaps the increasingly unpopular and “weak” Manmohan Singh could be replaced by Palaniappan Chidambaram to project the Congress’ image as a tough party?

A former home minister and currently India’s finance minister, Chidambaram is perceived as a tough, no-nonsense figure. He strikes a chord with India’s English-speaking elite.

He is no mass leader, though, and may have difficulty saving his own seat from the Sivaganga constituency.  His lack of any political base makes him an ideal person to keep the seat warm for Rahul; he is unlikely to challenge Rahul’s leadership in the Congress and will remain beholden to the Nehru-Gandhis.

While Chidambaram has powerful detractors within the Congress and the UPA, there is a perception, too, that making him prime minister until election day could boost the ruling coalition’s fading image and fortunes.

Besides, it would also enable the Congress to save its crown prince for an easier battle.