A poster of Narendra Modi in Kochi, the biggest city in the southern Indian state of Kerala ( © James Chiriyankandath)
The 2014 election could prove to be one of the most significant in India’s history with the Indian National Congress, the party that has headed the government for much of the 67 years since independence, facing defeat and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) bidding to regain power after a decade in opposition. The poll looks like being the most expensive ever – the Centre for Media Studies in New Delhi estimates that 300 billion rupees (US$5 billion) will be spent, second only to the US$7 billion spent in the last US presidential election.
Along with the Lok Sabha (House of the People) vote, polling will also take place for the state assemblies in three of the country’s 28 states – Andhra Pradesh in the south (soon to be controversially bifurcated into two new states, Telangana and Seemandhra), and Odisha (formerly Orissa) and Sikkim in the east. While there will be no voting for state legislatures in the other 25, over the past three or four decades national elections have increasingly become a series of regional contests rolled into an all-India battle for power with regional parties leading governments in ten states, almost as many as Congress and twice as many as the BJP. The difference in 2014 is that for the first time since Indira Gandhi dominated the political landscape until her assassination in 1984, at the centre of this election is a personality – that of Narendra Modi, the BJP’s candidate to be prime minister.
Modi, the 63-year-old chief minister of the western state of Gujarat since 2001, is the most bitterly divisive figure to appear on the Indian political stage since Indira. A Hindu nationalist since his teens, his combative politics and sarcastic rhetoric tap into a visceral Hindu nationalism that enthuses the rank and file of the BJP and the broader Hindu nationalist organisational family of its parent body, the thrice-banned Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. On the other hand, he evokes the bitter hostility of opponents and widespread apprehension arising from his authoritarian style and the lingering controversy surrounding the killing in riots in Gujarat in 2002 of over a thousand people, mainly Muslims, and the displacement of tens of thousands more. While his robust anti-trade union and business friendly policies have succeeded in winning over many of India’s corporate barons, among whom Gujaratis and Marwaris from western India are well represented, there are doubts about his capacity to adapt to being a leader on the national and international stage. He appears ill-prepared with only a high school education; his political experience is largely limited to Gujarat; and he has scant exposure to the world outside India.
For years Modi’s path to national leadership was stymied by warnings from leading figures in the BJP and some of its allied parties in the opposition National Democratic Alliance that his elevation would alienate potential partners in forming a coalition government following an election. Eventually outmanoeuvring his critics to gain acceptance as the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee in September 2013, a sustained, organised and well-funded tech-savvy media operation including the giant US communications consultancy APCO Worldwide has skilfully projected an image of Modi as a strong, dynamic, assertive and incorruptible leader from humble origins. Carefully shielded from probing interviews – he walked out on one in 2007 after being persistently questioned about the 2002 riots – “Brand NaMo” has been aggressively marketed on social media. This has been starkly contrasted to that of the tired, weak and indecisive decade-old governing Congress-led United Progressive Alliance of retiring Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, undermined by an economy in the doldrums after years of growth and reeling from the impact of a succession of highly damaging corruption scandals.
The mass anti-corruption movement arising from the backlash to the scandals presents Modi and the BJP, as well as Congress, with an unusual political challenge in the shape of the new Aam Aadmi (Common Man’s) Party (AAP) that sensationally briefly formed the government in the National Capital Territory of Delhi following elections in December. Its rambunctious leader, Arvind Kejriwal, began his national election campaign by vigorously attacking Modi on a tour of Gujarat, calculating that since the Gujarat CM had emerged as the central figure in the run up to the polls focusing on him would serve to keep AAP in the media spotlight.
The Modi campaign, on the road across India for months before the announcement of the polling dates, has been aided by an irresolute Congress leadership with 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi, the fourth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family to take the helm of the Congress Party, as yet unable to marshal an effective response. The latest opinion polls indicate that the BJP might achieve its best ever result with 200 or more of the 543 Lok Sabha seats while Congress could lose well over half the 206 it won in 2009, perhaps even slipping to double figures in what would then be its worse ever performance. Under these circumstances the chances of the BJP under Modi finding enough minor party partners to carry them over the 272-seat threshold to power look much better than they did six months ago.
However, if Modi falls short there is no shortage of aspirants for the prime ministership, especially a handful of other ambitious chief ministers leading regional parties, among them two formidable, if mercurial, women, Jayalalithaa in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, and Nitish Kumar, the CM of Bihar who ended a 17-year alliance with the BJP over Modi’s elevation but might end up paying a heavy electoral price. Mamata has floated the idea of forming a “Federal Front” as an alternative to the UPA and NDA but like another grouping also involving regional parties and principally promoted by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and its allies in the Left Front, it looks like coming to naught unless the tide turns against Modi in the dozen states of northern and western India that return over 300 MPs and may put him well on the road to power.
Dr James Chiriyankandath is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, and Co-Editor of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics. A shorter version of this blog initially appeared on the Institute of Commonwealth Studies blog.