Closing in on the Indian election

The Final Phase

Today, the world’s largest democracy is heading for the final election phase on 19th of May. Since kick-off more than five weeks ago, hundreds of millions of people have been casting their votes setting the course for India’s next five years. All in all, around 900 million people have been eligible to vote, and the voter turnout is said to break all records. Some states have already witnessed the highest ever turnout to date. An increase in woman voters is at the root of the overall increase in the voter turnout this year. Though also young and elderly are reportedly more present than before.

Rules of the game

The important number of seats to win a majority in the parliament, Lok Sabha, and form a government is 272. Due to India’s first-past-the-post system, beating the present government means that a broad coalition must be put together. Both BJP and the Congress Party have such coalitions. BJP’s is called the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), while that of the Congress is the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)

Only a few of the more than 20 parties in the coalitions can provide meaningful numbers of additional seats to the two parties. And while the UPA seemed sure before the election to be unable to win the majority by itself and will need the support of a few strong, regional, and currently nonaligned parties, the better-placed NDA may need this assistance as well.

In 2014 BJP won 282 seats by itself but had to rely on the support of its coalition as some of its seats were gradually lost. This year, however, there is scepticism about whether the party will obtain this kind of majority once again. BJP is, besides the UPA, facing tough competition from regional alliances. The political important state Uttar Pradesh (UP) is an example of that. The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party – traditionally rivals – have joined hands to wrest away UP from BJP’s hands.

Voting in this state is stretched out over all seven phases. The state accounts for 80 seats in the parliament out of which the BJP won a crushing 71 seats in 2014 at their landslide victory. The BJP’s mission to form a government largely depends on how many seats it manages to retain in this state.

However, some has lost faith in BJP’s priorities. The region is home to India’s “leather belt” – an industrial cluster of tanneries that taken together provides direct and indirect employment to hundreds of thousands of local people. Many of those tanneries have been forced to suspend operations due to pollution control measures issued by the BJP-led state government, causing consternation among workers.

 

 

Bollywood Stars turning political candidates

As the election increasingly looks to be a close call, parties in recent weeks have sought to capitalize on star power — especially, BJP which had added several celebrities to its line-up.

India’s elections are fiercely competitive — 8,251 candidates were fielded from 464 parties in the last general election in 2014. Bollywood stars fame means they already have something many novice politicians crave: name, recognition and a devoted fan base. When stars announce their campaigns, their first political rallies are almost guaranteed huge crowds.

 

The Gandhi siblings’ combative campaign

The leader of the Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi, seems now all but defeated by the election five years ago. Currently, he is on a combative campaign and was welcomed by a cheering crowd in the Gandhi stronghold of Amethi in UP a few weeks ago, one of the two seats he is contesting from. The other one being Wayanad, Kerala.

His campaign has been a bumpy ride though. The Supreme Court agreed to hear a plea to direct the Election Commission of India to debar him from contesting the polls after he allegedly had acquired British nationality. The allegation of dual citizenship was quickly rejected by his sister, Priyanka Gandhi and was later, however, dismissed by the Supreme Court.

Nevertheless, this highlights the trajectory the election has taken. As the end draws near it has turned into a mudslinging game. The Gandhi siblings are accusing the government of neglecting the people. Priyanka argues that development work has been overlooked and that Narendra Modi has lost his connection with the population. She blames him for spending more time enjoying Biryani with neighbouring states and making hollow promises instead of progressing the country. She further states that people in the country who voice their opinions are put behind bars on charges of being anti-national.

Rahul Gandhi is likewise accusing Narendra Modi of overlooking unemployment in the country and making national security the key narrative of the election after the incident with Pakistan in February. Gandhi’s argument is that the largest threat to national security is unemployment and bad conditions for workers. Among others, he attacks the demonetization, which the Modi-led government issued in 2016. Reports suggest that at least 5 million people lost job opportunities, which Gandhi calls a “disaster”, arguing forcefully that the currency ban hit people’s lives hard.

Rahul has pointed to employment generation and farmer welfare as the key priorities of the Congress, should they be elected. He has reached out to the people in Ludhiana with the promise to put all the party’s strength into reviving small and medium businesses. That way, he argues, India will be able to challenge China.

 

Modi’s battleground

Narendra Modi put up a roadshow when he, during the third election phase, cast his vote in his home state of Gujarat. He is contesting from Varanasi which will be voting on the seventh and final phase on 19th of May. Modi won the seat in 2014 with a huge margin of more than 300,000 votes. There was speculation that opposition parties would field a common candidate to take on the prime minister in the high-profile constituency, however that did not happen.

Modi accuses the Congress Party and the state’s regional parties of pandering to their vote bank in the Muslim community and not holding those responsible for terror attacks accountable. He compares the recent attacks in Sri Lanka to terrorism in India. On a day of rallies that also took him to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, the Prime Minister targeted the opposition, accusing them of going soft on terror and giving terrorists a long rope just for votes. Addressing a rally in Maharashtra, he also attacked Rahul’s decision to contest from Wayanad in Kerala besides his traditional seat Amethi.

 

An open wound

The soon three-decade long issue on the demolished Babri mosque in Ayodhya has been haunting the election. The site of the mosque has been a potential explosive point of religious tension over the demands from Hindu activists for the construction of a temple for the Hindu god Ram. An expeditious construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya is part of BJP’s manifesto.

Modi also promises swift action against terrorism:

“This new India will enter your home and kill you. We will respond to a bullet with a cannon… When you vote for BJP, your vote will come directly to Modi. This is the land of Lord Ram, this is the land of the country’s dignity.” Modi has pitched BJP as the only party that can eliminate terrorists “inside their homes”, an apparent reference to the Indian Air Force strike in Pakistan’s Balakot in February.

 

The counting of votes will be conducted on 23 May.

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