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Saturday, April 12, 2014

India polls not a cakewalk for Narendra Modi

 Some facts we tend to ignore on predicting the outcomes of polls in India

The big day is finally here: the biggest democratic exercise in the world has already begun with the first round of voting for the Indian general elections on April 7. 

This is a festival of sort, for the voters because they are going to cast their votes to choose the federal government after five long years of incompetent and corrupt rule; and for the candidates because one can always claim to be the prospective winner till the very moment the results are declared.

The moment of reckoning will soon come for all but single candidate from each constituency, but that is for later.

And without doubt, this is the prime time for the media in India: faring better than the rivals at such times may go a long way towards catapulting the fate of a media outlet and a media house.

A close look at the pre-election coverage in mainstream media in India will make you feel that these polls are all about Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi attempting to slice each other's throats with very big daggers; the former being in a very advantageous position to win the fight.

In fact, many sober and intelligent heads have been complaining that a very complicated electoral race with multiple dimensions is being deliberately reduced into an utterly simplified clash between two men in a media frenzy that is fixated at readership and viewership and nothing else.

If elections were to be governed by strictly statistical concept of probability, Modi would obviously slice Gandhi's throat politically. But that is under the condition that the opinion polls conducted so far in India have been representative enough to reflect the sentiments of the voters across the country, something many analysts are not convinced about given the track record of opinion polls in the past.

The intricacies that the opinion polls cannot deal with have to be elaborated from two standpoints.

From the standpoint of the parties and the candidates, these elections mean different things for the incumbent Congress and the opposition BJP; the expectations and the stakes are different for each accordingly.

At the end of a decade that saw a modest but steady gain of ground over the first half and a near-cataclysmic loss of ground in the second half, the Congress stands as a fatigued and humiliated force attempting to salvage as much as possible from the ruins. Accordingly the burden of expectation on Rahul Gandhi is not quite as heavy as might have been otherwise. If his party can achieve a modest show at half or so states and is able to deprive the opposition alliance a comfortable majority, Gandhi will be deemed to have reasonably succeeded in the heated battle.

The opposite applies for the opposition BJP. Out of power for a decade after losing hastily called polls in 2004 that the party predicted itself to win comfortably, the party was in shambles at around the last general elections in 2009. Two things have, however, reinvigorated it over the past few years: first is the unceremonious fall of the Congress-led government from grace with mammoth financial scandals that came to fore since 2011; and the second being the rise, rather crowning, of a firebrand provincial chief minister named Narendra Modi as the PM candidate. 

With three consecutive victories in the provincial assembly polls, his ability to reproduce them at the national level is now being tested with these polls. BJP's flamboyant victory achieved in three of four states in recent assembly polls is taken by most as the potent indicator that Modi will reproduce the winning results at the center. The burden of expectations thus lies heavily in Modi's shoulders.

From the standpoint of the voters, while much about voting remains the same over time, there are things that have changed substantially since the last general elections. Since the caste and clan loyalties have been very crucial in determining people's voting behavior all along, the parties and candidates in India always try to appease and lure people in their thousands and even tens of thousands from different communities with specific pledges related to those communities. When the religion factor is counted, even larger alignments and realignments can directly influence the results. That will hold true by and large this time around too.

What has changed substantially over past few years is the perception of the vocal section of society as to what forms a good/acceptable government. At the national level where the upwardly mobile middle class and the upper class shape the discourse including on the electoral agenda of political parties, the issue of economic growth has been dominating the center stage for last three and half decades ever since the process of economic liberalization accelerated in India. Those who can convincingly own the agenda of speeding up the liberalizing process thereby keeping the robust economic growth are thus the favorites of the vocal section of society. While it was the BJP in 1998 polls, the onus shifted to the Congress in 2004, only to be strengthened further in 2009.

This time, however, the subplot of 'good governance' has forcefully entered in the plot of economic growth after all that happened in past four years. While people expected and parties pledged good governance in the past elections, it was more like a ritual than anything else. As the assembly polls in Delhi showed with impressive performance of the new entrant Aam Admi Party in the plank of good governance, things are bound to be different this time around. The incumbent Congress is now readying itself to pay the price for visibly bad governance in terms of real loss of votes. 

Given the apparently good track record of Modi's government in Gujarat state, the BJP is doing everything to contrast itself with the 'corrupted to core' incumbents thereby trying to reap the electoral dividends. 

All said, however, it is hard to digest the projection of a leader as invincible and unassailable--something being done tooth and nail in Indian media--in truly democratic elections in one of the world's most diverse country. While the media frenzy around Modi's impending victory clearly intends to bury the caveats in the campaign to crown him as India's prime minister, they will nonetheless keep on to factor in the equation. 
  • Modi has never been formally proved of complicity in the wanton violence of 2002 in Gujarat but the fact that he presided the communal violence remains beyond doubt. Close watchers have not missed the tragic developments ever since in which he has successfully concocted his apparently harmless development agenda with venomous hardline religious ideology. That the concoction has worked splendidly in Gujarat is a reality but that it will do so at national level is a reasonable conjecture at best. That he never showed true remorse for the tragic loss of life in the violence is understandable given the political dividends that he reaped from the violence, but he went as far as casually comparing the death of Muslims in the pogrom with the 'poppy that is run over by a car' in his infamous remarks a decade after the incident thereby further infuriating the Indian Muslims. A thoroughly apprehensive Muslim minority aside, many non-Muslims who hate the Congress or a regional party for bad governance are not exactly comfortable about voting him. While the media's burnishing of Modi as the messiah of good governance and nothing else is likely to do the trick to some extent only the poll results will say how much it will be.
  • Despite the tall claims of Modi's rise being all about clinically efficient and corruption-free governance, there are some genuine concerns about the model of growth adopted in his state of Gujarat--particularly the extreme pro-corporate behavior of government--and its suitability for larger India. Modi and his army of campaigners have chosen to brush off the questions as irrelevant but not everybody is as sure. 
  • In party politics, Modi has been known to ensure that the lower rungs of ladder are broken with his every step up the hierarchy. Figures as towering as the party patriarch L K Advani have been snubbed by him in the past as he has advanced to the top. Chopping off dissent within and outside the party has been his steadfast strategy. While many in his camp think, rather wishfully, that this is necessary for a strong and decisive leadership, the strategy has its own downsides in the parliamentary politics in a diverse country and it remains to be seen how much they will factor this time around.
  • As is usual for BJP, the political outfit of right-wing religious organization Rastriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), one can always fall back upon the cushion of religious chauvinism bordering bigotry when the tools like development fail to appeal sufficient number of people. The infamous Rathyatra (chariot procession) by L K Advani in 1990 which was a prelude to the demolition of Babri mosque in 1992 resulting in one of the worst post-partition communal violence in the subcontinent, is widely accepted as the fortune-maker for the saffron party that later on rode to power at the center with help of the wave of polarization that resulted from the violence.  Modi's three successive victories in Gujarat are also justifiably attributed to extreme polarization of the religious communities after the 2002 violence. So what happens to the tolerant and pluralistic fabric of Indian society if the magic wand of good governance does not perform as expected and Modi falls back to the cushion of religious bigotry? Hereby lies the great doubt about suitability of voting for Modi in these elections for a section of Indian society aware of the country's political history. The fact that Modi and his campaigners have done precious little to dispel these doubts also counts at the moment. 
To sum up, while Modi-led BJP is the clear favorite to emerge the single largest party in India outperforming the congress, there is enough space to doubt the notion that it will be a landslide victory for the firebrand right wing leader as the cacophony in the media would like us to believe. Significantly, it is not the mere chance of election surprises but there some genuine issues that will keep a significant portion of Indian electorate from from voting the BJP. What proportion of that electorate can be bought by the combination of propaganda and hysteric burnishing of Modi's image by media remains to be seen and only the final tally of results will clarify everything. 

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