Greatest Show on Earth!
The statistics related to India’s sixteenth Lok Sabha elections are simply astounding.
In any democracy, regular elections are the norm. But in the case of India’s Lok Sabha elections, there are certain features that set them apart from similar exercises elsewhere in the world.
India is the largest democracy in the world with a population of 1.27 billion. Of these, 814.5 million are eligible voters – 426.6 million are men, 387.9 million women and 28,314 transgender voters. Another 11,844 are non-resident Indians registered to vote but they may not be able to participate in the elections because mail-in ballots are not allowed. Yet another feature of Elections 2014 is that there are as many as 23 million eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 19.
The amount of money candidates are allowed to spend on their election campaigns has been fixed at up to Rs.7 million. The process to elect the 543 members of the sixteenth Lok Sabha will kick off on April 7 and go on for more than one month, in nine phases, till May 12. Counting of votes will begin on May 16. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the two most populous states in the country, voting will be spread over six days. With the excitement generated by the campaigns and the color lent by festoons, flags and rallies, India’s general elections present the spectacle of the greatest show on earth.
It is a mind-boggling exercise in terms of manpower and resources. Moreover, this time the magnitude of the task is greater than ever because of an estimated 100 million new voters.
About 11 million personnel, including the military and the police, will be deployed to help conduct the elections. In addition, 5.5 million people, including school teachers and state and central government employees will work as polling officers and assist in the vote count. Voting will be done through electronic ballots for which 1.4 million electronic voting machines will be installed. Votes will be cast at 930,000 polling stations.
Six national parties, 47 state parties and most, if not all, of the 1,563 unrecognized parties will take part in the elections. A ‘national party’ is one that is recognized in at least four states; otherwise it is known as a ‘state party’.
Some national parties are the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Indian National Congress and Sharad Pawar’s National Congress Party. Important among the state parties are the Aam Aadmi Party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the NR Congress, Forward Bloc, the Trinamool Congress, the United Democratic Front, the Jharkhand Students Union, the Asom Gana Parishad, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Indian Union Muslim League, the Janata Dal (United), the Janata Dal (Secular), the Lok Jana Shakti Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Party, the Shiromani Akali Dal, the Shiva Sena and the Telugu Desham Party.
The main contest will be between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. One represents the ruling Congress
while the other is nominated by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. The contrast between the two is classic David and Goliath – from age to education to background to political philosophy and to experience.
Gandhi is a full 20 years younger than Modi. He has degrees from St. Stephens College (Delhi) and Cambridge, under his belt. Modi was educated locally and did his Masters in Political Science from the University of Gujarat. Gandhi is a Brahmin, born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all India’s prime ministers. Modi is a Vaish from a family of grocers, who started life as a tea stall vendor.
Gandhi has a secular political outlook. Modi is communal and is blamed for the Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. From his earliest days as a school student, he has been an active pracharak (publicity worker) of the extreme rightwing Rashtriya Sevak Sangh that was responsible for Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination.
Rahul Gandhi does not have any experience of governance, whereas Narendra Modi has been chief minister of Gujarat since 2001. Modi is using the economic progress of Gujarat as a trump card to support his eligibility as the next prime minister of the country. He also catches the fancy of the masses for being a new face on the country’s political stage. There is a large segment of voters that believes that Modi should be given a chance. The ruling Congress, on the other hand, suffers from incumbency fatigue after two consecutive terms in office. Besides, it is also weighed down by scandals of massive corruption. Modi’s hands are clean. The BJP under Modi is therefore believed to emerge as the largest party after the elections.
According to the opinion polls conducted by NDTV in collaboration with the Hansa Research Centre, the BJP-led NDA is likely to win 229 seats. The Congress-led UPA can win 129 seats and the other parties can get 130 seats. Besides, the NDA is projected to win 8 and the Congress 22 seats in small states and union territories. That leaves the remaining parties with 55 seats.
But there may be some surprises as well. First, there is the Third Front or the Left front of regional parties with its commitment to secularism and social justice. It stands united in its opposition to both the Congress and the BJP.
The 11-party Third Front has declared itself as an “alternative” to the dominance of the Congress and the BJP. As the Congress is not expected to win, the Third Front has aligned itself against the BJP which it sees as being “a dangerous mix (of) aggressive capitalism ( and) a rabid form of communal ideology.”
The second and more formidable challenge is posed by the Aam Aadmi Party. It sprung a surprise in its debut contest in the Delhi state elections last year when it emerged as the majority party. The AAP proposes to contest from 20 out of 29 states against the Congress and the BJP, and expects to win 100 seats. That figure may be too ambitious but given its increasing popularity, it may actually win a fairly large number of seats.
The size of the dent that the Third Front and the AAP may cause in the Congress and BJP’s vote bank is difficult to predict but it is expected to be substantial. In the current Lok Sabha, the Third Front parties have 92 seats. It is quite likely, therefore, that jointly the AAP and the Third Front may further improve the tally.
With no party likely to win an outright majority of 272 seats, the majority party will have to form a coalition with smaller regional parties, which has been the trend since 1989. This will be a happy augury in case the BJP comes to power because a coalition would prevent Modi from riding rough shod over the minorities with his Hindutva or Hindu nationalist agenda.
Some analysts predict that on the foreign policy front, a Modi-led government is likely to take a more hardline stance on Pakistan. However, this may be a bogey because Atal Bihari Vajpayee, another BJP prime minister, also took many steps to improve ties with Pakistan. He made a bus trip to Lahore and later invited President Musharraf to visit India. The writer is a senior political analyst and former editor of SouthAsia Magazine.