FeaturesAshok Sharma

The World’s Largest Democracy is at Polls: An Insight into the Indian Parliamentary Election 2014

FeaturesAshok Sharma

India National Congress Party volunteer rally in Mumbai, April 2009. Image: Al Jazeera English. Starting next week, an estimated 814 million voters in India will elect 543 representatives for 5-year terms in the Lower House of the Indian Parliament through a multiphase poll. The road for the ruling Congress Party—officially the Indian National Congress—will be tough in the upcoming election due to corruption, rising prices, the slow pace of economic reforms, a failure to tackle terrorism, and an inquisitive deadlock resulting from smugness and lack of coordination within the government.

Corruption is likely to be an important issue in the election. In April 2011, India’s problems with widespread political corruption sparked a large scale movement led by Gandhian social activist Anna Hazare and yoga guru Baba Ramdev, resulting into protests across the country for stronger legislation and enforcement against corruption. The present Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government has been charged with allegations of high profile scams and embezzlement in public expenditure and dealings. However, the Congress Party has continuously failed dealing with corruption, causing it to suffer defeats in legislative assembly elections in four states in December. The sudden rise of the Aam Admi Party and its leader Arvind Kejriwal’s ascendancy to the Chief Ministership in the Delhi state election, the leading opposition party Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) retaining its rule in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and the BJP ousting Congress out of power in Rajasthan are clear indications that corruption has cost the Congress Party at the ballot box.

Moreover, voters in India will continue to fall in line along primordial affiliations, such as caste and religious identity. There is a strong ideological divide between the two leading political party coalitions, the Congress-led UPA and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) on communal issues, such as the building of the Ram temple at Ayodhya. Though economic and governance issues have taken the lead, religion-based politics will still strongly influence this election, too. Apart from the Congress Party’s misrule in failing to tackle scams and curbing corruption in the 1990s, the rise of BJP in 1990s and its upward growth trajectory until now has been due to the consolidation of Hindu nationalist votes; in the upcoming elections, Hindu nationalists will likely be galvanized to support Narendra Modi, a Hindu hardliner, for Prime Minister. On the other hand, the Congress Party will likely continue to play its secularism card and win the votes of Muslims, who constitute around 14.4 percent of the total population in India.

The UPA has failed to deliver on economic improvement. Despite the government’s efforts to bring the people out of poverty through schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA) and the introduction of a food security bill, the economically marginalized section of India has continued to fall victim to rising inflation and high prices of essential commodities. In August 2013, the Indian rupee sank to an all time low of 68.80 against the US dollar, and India’s GDP almost halved in just three years and fell down to around 5 percent in the 2012-2013 fiscal year from 9.3 percent in 2010–11. Economic slowdown and shrinking business opportunities have cut into job creation in India in the last two years; the unemployment rate has increased from 3.5 percent in 2011 to 3.7 percent in 2013. A demographic change of 100 million new young voters since the last election in 2009 has furthered the necessity of job creation, upon which the government has failed to deliver.

Furthermore, the Congress Party has not efficiently tackled the problem of terrorism. India has been one of the worst affected countries by terrorism; according to the latest data from the National Bomb Data Centre (NBDC), India is the third most dangerous places in the world as far as bomb blasts per year are concerned, next only to Iraq and Pakistan. Between 2004 and 2013, India witnessed an average of 298 IED blasts and 1,337 resulting casualties. So far, the BJP has not raised terrorism as a focus point in the elections, but it will inevitably be an important factor in the election.

The Congress Party has also failed to deliver good governance in comparison to the state level governments that are being run by either BJP or other non-Congress governments. On the other hand, BJP-ruled states such as Gujarat, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh have performed well. These states have witnessed double-digit growth rates and have shown an upward trajectory in overall development. Gujarat, under the chief ministership of Narendra Modi, continues to be a leading state in overall growth and development in India. Bihar, once a lawless state, witnessed the highest growth rate in India and has been praised for good governance under the leadership of BJP-allied Nitish Kumar.

India’s exceptional number of middle class will play an important role in the election. The 2011 anti-corruption movement is an indication of the increasing awareness and involvement of the middle class in Indian politics. They are using modern technology, media, and social networking site such as Facebook and Twitter to express their sentiments.

In conclusion, the BJP-led NDA is set to have an advantage over the Congress-led UPA. The recent state election results and all the opinion poll surveys show a positive trend for BJP. In addition, the BJP is also gaining strength because its Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is extremely popular and ahead of his main rival Rahul Gandhi from the Congress Party in the polls. Of course, the BJP will need more partners to form a coalition, in case it does not win a clear majority. However, the current trends and the receding popularity of the Congress Party may lead to galvanisation of regional and smaller parties to inch towards the NDA coalition, enabling it to form a new government in New Delhi.