The dates of India’s general election have just been set, but in practice the election campaign has been underway since at least the middle of 2013. India’s political parties have been busy trying to define the issues on which the campaign should be fought. Four main narratives have been used to outline what the elections are about.
First, let’s look at the views of the Hindu nationalist, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP claims to stand for a national view of Indian politics and in the past has claimed that Hindus are consistently overlooked in their own country. Currently the BJP want attention to focus on economic growth and leadership. This was neatly encapsulated in their choice of candidate for Prime Minister: the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi. Quarterly economic growth in India slowed to less than 5% of GDP in 2013. It has been close to 8% for much of the previous decade and the BJP claim the governing Congress coalition are failing to turn the economy around. The state of Gujarat has had growth rates among the highest of the Indian states in recent years. The BJP claims Modi can replicate this performance at the national level, and he has certainly gained a pro-business reputation as a can-do administrator who will cut through red tape. Modi is presented as a decisive leader, not burdened by family ties, who is entirely focused on governing effectively and bringing development to his state. This is contrasted with Congress which routinely turns to members of the Nehru-Gandhi family for leadership. The current president of the Congress Party is Sonia Gandhi, the widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Their son, Rahul Gandhi, is currently leading the Congress campaign. The BJP object that Rahul is naïve, inexperienced and born to privilege, which contrasts with Modi’s humble background and long experience of governing the state of Gujarat.
The second narrative is offered by the Congress Party, which has led two national coalition governments since 2004. Congress is running for re-election on its record, claiming that its coalition governments have delivered significant welfare improvements since 2004. The national government has provided employment guarantees, subsidised food for the poor and enacted right to information legislation to help ordinary people tackle corruption. The Government of India has been able to spend generously on social development measures like pensions and rural health care. Congress refuses to say who will be its Prime Minister should it lead the winning coalition in May. While it avoids its own leadership issues it raises awkward questions about Modi’s leadership. Congress claims it stands for religious tolerance and alleges that the BJP will victimise religious minorities should it come to office. Indian election law forbids politicians from seeking votes on religious grounds and so Rahul Gandhi has been reprimanded by India’s election watchdog for being outspoken on religious issues. Such reprimands amplify the sentiments expressed and perhaps Rahul hopes to burnish his secular image by taking such strong positions.
Indian politics has been shaken up by a third narrative since 2011. The Aam Admi Party (AAP) (Party of the Common Man) was formed in 2012 promising an alternative to politics as usual in India. The background to the AAP was the campaign against corruption spearheaded by the activist Anna Hazare. This campaign gained massive headlines in 2011 as Hazare went on hunger strike several times, demanding that the government introduce draconian legislation against corruption. Hazare models himself on Mahatma Gandhi, arguing that Indian politics needs a moral revival. One of Hazare’s supporters, Arvind Kejriwal felt the anti-corruption agenda would get further if it was backed by a political party, and so the AAP was formed. The AAP has been boosted by a number of high profile corruption scandals that have come to light since 2010. The AAP has picked up on a popular feeling that the Indian state is unresponsive and run by self-interested individuals who do not care about ordinary citizens. The horrific Delhi rape case in December 2012 brought to light the weakness of the police when it comes to dealing with sexual crimes. Ordinary people are frequently ignored, especially women, by the authorities. On the other hand wealthy individuals and big business seem to get fast-track treatment by the Indian state. The AAP argues that it stands for the common people and wants reform to the state. It claims that other parties are part of the establishment and profit from a system of government where bribes have to be paid to get things done. The AAP campaigns against both the BJP and Congress. Ideologically it is difficult to locate the party. It has attracted lots of progressive campaigners from civil society backgrounds. Yet its campaign against corruption is especially popular among the prosperous middle class.
Regionalism is the fourth narrative that is being used to define Indian politics at the moment. India has a large number of small and medium sized parties that claim a special affinity with their region, often based on strong affection for one of India’s 23 official languages. The default position of regional parties is that Indian federalism gives too much power to the central government. Regional parties usually argue that national parties abuse that power to discriminate against state governments run by regional parties. Regional politicians often add that the centre does not allocate enough development funds to the regions. They argue for more autonomy and more finance for state governments. Since India has been governed only by coalition since 1996 regional parties have become important junior coalition partners. Leaders of regional parties therefore claim they can make national governments more responsive to India’s state when they join a coalition. In previous elections regional parties have tended to opt into a pre-election alliance with either the BJP or Congress. However this time round quite a few of the larger regional parties have ignored the national parties, and syndicated with each other into a ‘federal front’, claiming they can form a government of their own.
The 2014 election will be fascinating. It will not be a two horse race between two alliances headed by the BJP and Congress. Many seats will be contested by three or four serious candidates. Constituency outcomes will be unpredictable as parties pitch their favoured narrative in a noisy and highly competitive election.
Andrew Wyatt lectures on Indian politics at the University of Bristol. He is the author of Party System Change in South India (Routledge, 2009), and co-author with Katharine Adeney of Contemporary India (Palgrave, 2011).