Midway through the largest and most complex electoral process in the world, it is clear that this is a watershed general election for India—though perhaps not quite in the way that is generally perceived.
It would be a mistake to perceive this election along the lines of a U.S. Presidential election, despite the best efforts of the media and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to convert it into that. It is a vote for a Parliament based on a first-past-the-post system in which several regional parties have key roles in their own states. The major “national” candidates—such as Narendra Modi of the BJP, Rahul Gandhi of the Congress Party, and Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (the new kid on the block, born out of the anti-corruption campaign) are not voted for nationally; rather, they are significant to the extent they can inspire voters to vote for their party across the country.
No party will get a clear majority, i.e., 272 seats out of 542. And many other factors intervene in each state and region. Several regional parties are likely to get around 20-30 seats each, which means that post-election alliances (however fragile) are inevitable if a government is to be formed. The main question right now is whether the BJP and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will get enough seats to make some other parties support them. Three women leaders will be important in the post-poll calculus: J. Jayalalitha (Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu), Mamata Banerjee (Chief Minister of West Bengal) and Mayawati (former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh).
The most significant “wave” in the country is disaffection with the Congress Party, which has ruled India intermittently (on its own or in alliances such as the current ruling United Progressive Alliance) for most of post-Independence history, but now seems depressed and defeated even before the results. The UPA has just had two consecutive five-year tenures. The first was relatively successful, with rapid economic growth and some relief to people through measures like employment guarantee, more social spending, and attention to rural revival. The second period was dissipated in dealing with corruption scams (most of which relate to deals done ironically during their more dynamic first tenure). Even their prized flagship schemes were run down, and electoral promises like food security were sought to be honoured in cynical haste towards the end.
The Congress Party now has the image of being corrupt and tired. The Gandhi dynasty, which has become the sole cementing feature of the party, has run out of steam. Current heir Rahul Gandhi gives the impression of being an earnest but inept young man who simply doesn’t have what it takes in terms of organisational ability or charisma.
This is the context in which Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat and Prime Ministerial candidate of the BJP, has emerged as the supposed game-changer. His rapid image makeover in public discourse is remarkable. Someone who even a year ago was nationally seen as a polarising and distrusted figure, at best just one among several state leaders even within his own party, has become the most talked-about and lauded politician in the country, without any real changes on the ground. The apparently successful whitewashing of past sins of omission and commission (such as presiding over the anti-Muslim progrom in Gujarat in 2002) has been combined with dubious lionisation of his “governance,” even though his state has not really performed that well compared to many other states in the country.
This has been possible because of a major shift in corporate support and involvement, as big business has basically decided to push for him. The Modi economic model in Gujarat essentially consists of promoting and incentivising big business through all sorts of explicit and implicit subsidies, keeping wages low and suppressing any workers’ action, repression of popular movements and cracking down on dissent. For obvious reasons, this is popular with the large capitalists who are beneficiaries, even though one consequence of this strategy is that despite relatively high per capita income, Gujarat has among the lowest wages among all states and poor human development indicators. Modi’s trajectory in Gujarat provides a foretaste of the authoritarian crony capitalism based on majoritarian community support, which we might expect if he does indeed succeed in his ambition to rule India.
This is possibly the first election in which big business has come out so actively, all guns blazing, in support of their candidate, which is reflected most of all in the media. In my lifetime I have not previously seen such carpet-bombing media coverage of any candidate (even Indira Gandhi in her authoritarian heyday) as we are now seeing for Modi. This is exacerbated by growing corporate control over all sorts of media—the large business conglomerates and especially one of them now have controlling or significant shares in almost all major TV channels, newspapers, etc, at national and regional levels. This has significantly affected the nature and tone of media coverage, making it less objective or reliable.
So this particular national election is a watershed not only because of the apparently conclusive decline of the Congress Party and the aggressive revival of the BJP. It is a battle over different ideas of India: political, economic, social. And it is a test case for whether political consent can indeed be manufactured by the media in such a complicated and diverse country.