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Irrespective of who is elected, India may not be ready for the challenges that lie ahead

The elections should have been an opportunity for a robust political debate on precisely these issues so that people could make informed choices and see the emergence of a broad consensus. That has not happened.

columns Updated: Apr 27, 2019 20:29 IST
Hindustan Times
An election official carries a Electronic Voting Machine and other poll-related material, Jammu, April 10, 2019(Nitin Kanotra / Hindustan Times)

Midway through the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, political conversation is dominated by how parties are faring, in which region, in which phase, and in which constituency. The truth is that till the results are announced, predicting outcomes is a hazardous, if not futile, enterprise. The vote is secret, Indian elections are too big, voter motivations too complex, and the polity is too fragmented for anyone to really know.

But what one can discern are the broad patterns which have come to the fore in this election.

The first is clearly the manner in which Narendra Modi has, for the second time after 2014, dominated national consciousness. Both surveys and anecdotal evidence from the ground suggest that Modi is, by far, India’s most popular national leader, and some argue that his vote base is broadly intact, or may have even increased. His critics may contest it, but a substantial section of the electorate continues to see him as honest, decisive, and strong, as a leader who has delivered on rural welfare and national security. This segment is not attracted to the alternatives and is willing to give him another chance. The election will hinge on how large this section is, what the distribution of Modi’s support base across states is, and whether it is enough to take on a united opposition in key states.

But a parallel phenomenon, which is as obvious to those who have travelled on the ground, is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) increasing hollowness on the issue of local leaders. Incumbent MPs are unpopular; few are able to mobilise and inspire constituencies on their own; many confront formidable opposition candidates. If it becomes an election about local issues and candidates — or if it becomes 543 separate elections instead of one national election — the BJP is in trouble.

The second broad pattern is that this election is between coalitions.

What is more talked about is of course the opposition coalition. This has assumed different forms. There is one coalition led by the Congress nationally but with state-specific variations in Bihar, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Jammu and Kashmir and Jharkhand. This has meant that the Congress is today contesting in fewer seats than it has ever done in the past. Then you have the true Grand Alliance of Uttar Pradesh (UP), of the Samajwadi Party(SP)-Bahujan Samaj Party(BSP)-Rashtriya Lok Dal(RLD) in UP. But even as Modi mocks all these alliances as “mahamilavat”, the fact is that he leads an alliance as well.

The BJP has state-specific alliances in Maharashtra, Punjab, Bihar, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh. In Maharashtra and Bihar in particular, it bent over backwards to accommodate smaller partners, recognising that replicating a 2014-style majority may be difficult. The structure of power in Delhi could thus be somewhat different after the elections; it could mean a return to the normal of Indian politics as it existed for two and a half decades between 1989 and 2014.

The third broad, inter-related, feature is the continued importance of the regional parties.

It is not just the major state parties of UP. Look across and it is obvious that the footprint of national parties is limited. Take Tamil Nadu with 39 seats. Here, the Congress has had to tag along with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the BJP with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), with other local parties in the fray. Take Andhra Pradesh and Telangana with 42 seats between them. Here, the game is entirely dominated by the Telangana Rashtriya Samithi (TRS), the YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). Move up east and while the BJP is making strides, its primary challengers remain the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha and the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. Together, the two have 63 seats. In Bihar, once again, the BJP is a strong player, but the state’s triangular polity has a strong player in the Rashtriya Janata Dal even though its supremo, Lalu Prasad, is in jail, and the Janata Dal (United).

Irrespective of the final tally, the deep roots of regional parties, their strong social coalitions, and the popularity of local state leaders have together meant the story of Indian democracy is one of political diversity, contrary to what excessive media attention on one or two leaders or one or two parties may suggest.

The fourth point is about the importance of different regions for the two national parties.

For the BJP, the big battle is in UP, where it is confronting its stiffest political challenge in the form of the SP-BSP alliance. The priority here for the party is not to retain its overwhelming dominance of 71 seats but to minimise its loss. The other big region for the party is the east: West Bengal, Odisha and, to some extent, the Northeast. The BJP expects to gain here. But the question is the extent of the gain, and whether it is sufficient to offset losses elsewhere.

For the Congress, the two major geographical spaces are the south and the three states where it won polls at the end of 2018. In the south, the Congress’ big weakness is that it is now a weak to non-existent player in Andhra and Telangana. But if it can do well in Karnataka, sweep Kerala, and piggy back on the DMK in Tamil Nadu, it will see a respectable jump in its tally. In Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the party’s challenge is building on its success in the assembly elections but reports indicate that the Congress may not be able to inflict the kind of damage in terms of numerical losses it would have liked on the BJP.

But beyond the political trends, there is one feature of this election which bears emphasis. India faces a range of serious policy crises. We are in the middle of multiple political economy transitions. And the country has not been able to find durable solutions to major issues like unemployment and the agrarian crisis. The elections should have been an opportunity for a robust political debate on precisely these issues so that people could make informed choices and see the emergence of a broad consensus. That has not happened. Instead, either short-term populist measures have been offered as solutions or the discourse itself has been diverted to other issues.

And that is the real crisis. Irrespective of who is elected, India may not be ready for the challenges that lie ahead.

First Published: Apr 27, 2019 20:29 IST