India Gears Up for Election

Hindu nationalist-led National Democratic Alliance expected to remain in power


By YU JIANG

Its all systems go as the world’s largest democracy gears up for general election, with the two major rival parties, the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the opposition Congress, going head to head in their election campaigns.

SUCCESSFUL WHEELMAN: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is believed to be the trump card of the ruling coalition in the upcoming general election

Under the request of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, President A.P. Abdul Kalam dissolved the 13th Lok Sabha (Lower House of the Parliament) on February 6, nearly nine months before its term, paving the way for an early general election.

In early March, India’s Election Commission announced that a four-phase parliamentary poll would be held from April 20 to May 10 involving around 650 million voters. The voting process will incorporate over 1 million electronic voting machines, in what will be India’s first fully electronic national election.

In the last general election in 1999, the 24-party NDA, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), secured 296 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha. Of these, 182 were won by the BJP.

After five years in power, what are the NDA’s prospects this time round? Opinion polls indicate that the NDA is still popular with voters, with Vajpayee still the voters’ favorite. The Hindu nationalist BJP was expected to command as high as 57 percent of the vote while the Congress to scrape up a mere 27 percent. These findings were the results of a Times of India-TNS (Taylor Nelson Sofres) poll survey in February, confined to mostly urban areas.

Another opinion poll by the weekly magazine Outlook revealed that 62 percent of the more than 12,000 people surveyed in late February felt Vajpayee’s coalition should be given another chance in power. It forecasted that Vajpayee’s BJP-led coalition would win 280-290 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha. On the other hand, the survey indicated that the Congress, which ruled India for 45 years since independence, would win just 103 seats, an all-time low.

India Is Shining

The “India Is Shining” and “feel-good” factors used to promote the country have apparently boosted the image of the BJP. The ruling party boasts an 8 percent economic growth in 2003 while the foreign currency reserves have soared to $100 billion.

CLIMBING HIGH: The Vajpayee era has witnessed a fast growth of the Indian economy

“Our economic growth and development have enhanced our international standing. Simultaneously, our network of international cooperation has provided new opportunities for India’s growth and development. India is shining,” Vajpayee once told a rally in New Delhi.

Local observers believe that much of the NDA’s aura of success is the result of Prime Minister Vajpayee’s presence at the helm. He is widely recognized to be quite far ahead of the other leaders in popularity. This perception shows up in his approval ratings in the two surveys.

Despite all this success, the BJP has shown no complacency in the run-up to the polls. It has taken all steps to ensure victory. It promised voters that India is marching toward progress and will be a developed nation within five years if the high-growth economy continues. India’s world image is also at an all-time high.

Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Advani began his month-long countrywide road show on March 10 to highlight the achievements of the Vajpayee-led NDA. In his “India Is Shining” tour, Advani said that if Vajpayee continued in power for five more years, India would surely become a “superpower.”

Moreover, the Hindu-nationalist party has not raised the sensitive issue of the Ram Temple in the holy city of Ayodhiya, which has outraged Muslims over the past few years. The party even announced that Muslims would be safe in a BJP-dominated state. Many Muslims were wooed to join the party in order to give the party a secular color.

Corrupt, Says Congress

In response to the BJP’s “India Is Shining” ad blitz about a “feel-good” factor pervading India, the Congress and other Left parties have countered the effect, with their own notions of “The Common Man Feeling Bad.”

“Can India shine when large sections of the population, particularly those dependent on agriculture, are starving and are even being forced to sell their children?” retorted Congress President Sonia Gandhi.

The Congress has also alleged that corruption during Prime Minister Vajpayee’s five years in office cost the country a whopping 500 billion rupees (roughly $10 billion) and his party misled Indians about economic growth when in fact the GDP was dropping.

To win voters, the Congress is now aiming for the lower middle class and the poorer sections of the population, by focusing on growing unemployment and the plight of farmers, who are not the beneficiaries of the “feel-good” factor.

On March 22, the Congress released its manifesto for 2004-09, which has identified a number of core issues including an employment guarantee scheme for youths, reservation for socially and educationally lagging minorities and empowerment of women.

The manifesto articulated the party’s vision of a politically united, economically strong, socially just and culturally harmonious India, with a high international standing among the community of nations.

Local analysts say the disadvantage of the Congress is that the party is woefully short of popular leaders, most of whom seen merely as Sonia Gandhi loyalists without a sound political base of their own. The NDA has been able to present itself as a team that performs, while Congress criticism of the BJP’s list of achievements sounds hollow, lacking in conviction.

Another weak point for the Congress is Italian-born Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin, which has been a recurring theme in the BJP’s campaign for the general election. On March 20, the BJP said it was all for a law to bar foreign-born people from taking top posts, which it would bring if it got a clear mandate in the upcoming election.

“India should only be ruled by an Indian,” BJP President M. Venkaiah Naidu said.

Still An Open Race

Does this mean the BJP-led NDA is sure to win the upcoming election? Political analyst Yogendra Yadav said in early March that the ruling BJP is clearly well ahead of the opposition Congress party. Although a win for Prime Minister Vajpayee’s BJP seemed to be a foregone conclusion in the media, it is not really the case.

“It is still an open race,” Yadav said in a full-page analysis in The Hindu newspaper. “ The question is not whether the NDA has an advantage at the national level. That it undoubtedly has. The real question is whether the BJP and its various allies can convert this advantage into seats in each state. That remains an open question.”

Yadav said he was not convinced the ballot “is a one-sided race all the way” or that “the NDA’s majority is a foregone conclusion and that the Congress is about to slip down to its worst-ever performance.”

The result of the general election will not be known until May 13. But it is clear that whoever comes to power will face many challenges governing this nation of 1 billion people.