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The Indian election: will 2014 be ‘Modi’s moment’?

In a major shift from business-as-usual politics the population appears less predisposed to caste, communal or dynastic politics – writes Gauri Khandekar

From April 7 until May 12, India will go to the polls to elect its next government in what is seen as the world’s largest democratic exercise. Around 815 million eligible voters will choose their candidates for the 543-seat Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament. The electorate has increased by 13.6 per cent; rising from the 717 million voters registered during the 2009 elections, and will feature a large number of first-time voters. According to the Indian Election Commission, 23 million citizens are between 18 and 19 years old, and a fifth of the electorate is aged between 18 to 25 years. The contest is rife among more than 1,600 national and regional political parties but Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, is widely touted to become the next Indian prime minister.

The political landscape has been dominated by two national-level parties. The 128-year-old Indian National Congress, led by the Gandhi dynasty, has governed the country for 49 out of 67 years since independence in 1947. The BJP, founded in 1980, is India’s main opposition party and has ruled India three times – 13 days in 1996, 18 months in 1998 to 1999 and in 1999 to 2004. Both the INC and the BJP lead big alliances – the largely left-leaning United Progressive Alliance currently with nine parties in total and the centre-right National Democratic Alliance, which has 34 parties in total. Coalition politics has become the norm – the last single-party majority government was formed in 1984. Combined, the INC and the BJP generally win around 300 seats out of 543. In the 2009 elections, INC scored 206 and BJP 116. Other parties, therefore, are influential as they usually determine who comes to power.

This election underscores change – in leadership, in political discourse and in general attitudes, not to mention aspirations. The main reason behind this change is the exposure of multiple multi-billion dollar scams involving top politicians, the poor economic performance of the country, high consumer price inflation, lethargic infrastructure growth and a lack of opportunities. Fatigued citizens want a central government that can deliver higher economic growth, development, more participatory politics and an end to corruption. In a major shift from business-as-usual politics the population appears less predisposed to caste, communal or dynastic politics.

During the 10-year tenure of the INC-led UPA government, on several occasions India has had to readjust its economic prospects. Gross domestic product growth hit a decade-low of 4.5 per cent in 2012, which given the country enormous size feels like a recession to most of its 1.2 billion citizens, while consumer price inflation averaged not much more than 10 per cent from 2009 to 2012 – according to the World Bank.

The UPA government’s overwhelming focus on pro-poor policies has failed to maintain high growth rates, attract foreign investment – $1 trillion pump-priming in infrastructure is needed over the next five years – or connect with the small but growing middle classes; particularly the youth, who desire more economic opportunities instead of drifting at the fringes of poverty. The public’s general attitude, also reflected in a series of pre-election polls, indicates that change in India’s political leadership is almost certain.

Riding on a wave of Modi mania, it is increasingly likely that India’s 2014 elections will be ‘Modi’s moment’. Despite having a controversial past – Modi was accused of complicity in the 2002 riots in Gujarat, when mobs killed almost 1,000 people, mostly Muslims after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was torched – he has major development credentials to show. During his tenure in charge of Gujarat from 2001-2012, Modi transformed that state. Gujarat had the lowest national unemployment rate of 1 per cent in 2012, a 12-fold rise in agriculture, milk production doubled since 2001 and 37 more universities were created. Modi also generated a revenue surplus of $770m, having started with a deficit of $1.2bn in 2001. Furthermore, Gujarat averaged annual economic growth of 10 per cent from 2004 to 2012, and nearly 15 per cent in 2005.

Modi’s vision of an ‘Indian dream’ therefore appeals to aspirational Indians. He has promised to create 250 million jobs by 2024, to attract more foreign investment, to kick-start the manufacturing sector and to construct a high-speed railway network. Importantly, he has the solid backing of the business community.

At a foreign level, Modi has long cultivated ties with Japan to woo Japanese investment to Gujarat – Japan is the largest donor of official development assistance to India – and was the first Indian state leader to conduct an official visit to Japan in 2007. In the West, the United States had banned Modi’s entry to the country regarding the Gujarat pogrom. European Union countries had followed with their own boycott. However, since he is now a frontrunner to be India’s prime minister, Western attitudes have shifted.

The ability of Indian voters to overcome dynastic affinity and religious and caste considerations has been largely underestimated by their politicians. This election is to correct that perception and prove that Indians want better governance, an end to corruption and more economic opportunities. Change seems imminent and the Indian elections will most likely bring a new government in Delhi. But many factors still must fall into place for a BJP-led National Democratic Alliance to form the next government. Modi’s party is still expected to fall short of around 30 seats to gain absolute majority but coalitions with powerful regional parties could easily do the job. Most developments suggest that India’s 2014 elections will be Modi’s moment.

Gauri Khandekar is a researcher at the Spanish-based FRIDE think-tank

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