The 2014 Indian general election is currently under way. With over 800 million people eligible to vote, it’s a long and complicated process: polls are being held on different dates across the 543 parliamentary constituencies, over the course of five weeks. The first were held a week ago, on 7 April, while the last won’t be until 12 May, with the final result due to be announced on 16 May.
With that ongoing, I thought I’d record my observations from travelling around the country at the end of last year.
While the media were presenting it as a close contest, and opinion polls before Christmas were suggesting a narrow lead for the BJP-led NDA coalition, all of the grass-roots opinions I was hearing were supportive of the BJP. Since January, opinion polls seem to have caught up with that groundswell and started to report a much more significant lead.
The general perception and opinion of people I spoke to was that Congress, the incumbent party, were mired in corruption and had failed to provide the economic development people desired. The BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, on the other hand, has, as Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat since 2001, a reputation of bucking that trend and overseeing an economic boom.
Whether that reputation is right or wrong – to what extent Modi’s policies were responsible for Gujarat’s economic success, and how much of it he translated into human development for the state’s poor – is another question. I’m just reporting what the people I spoke to thought, and their opinions were almost unanimously pro-Modi.
When I asked whether Modi might suffer from his other reputation – the taint of responsibility for Gujarat’s 2002 communal violence against Muslims – most people were dismissive. They question whether or not he was truly responsible, pointing out that the incident occurred just a few months after Modi first assumed office (ie, less likely to be a conspiracy hastily planned from the top, than a spontaneous phenomenon poorly handled by an inexperienced leadership) and that such incidents are, sadly, common occurrences across India, and have happened before and since, elsewhere than Gujarat and under Congress administrations. While I was there, similar violence was affecting the area around Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh.
Again, I’m not stating my opinion on whether Modi’s administration was responsible for the 2002 violence or not, just reporting the consensus of opinion that I found.
It even seemed that Gujarat Muslims had come around to this way of thinking, as it was generally reported that their vote had gone to Modi in the 2012 Gujarat state elections. As one of my couchsurfing hosts explained, the poor minorities wanted development, not sympathy. They felt that Modi promised the former, while Congress, for all its multi-ethnic, secular rhetoric, only gave them the latter.
Which brings me to Indian opinion on their current rulers, the Congress party. If you think the current British cabinet suffers from a sense of born-to-rule entitlement, they’re nothing compared to the leadership of the Indian National Congress.
A quick bit of background. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, ruled from Independence in 1947 to his death in 1964. He was himself the son of Motilal Nehru, a former President of the Congress in its pre-Independence days. He was succeeded by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who, apart from one term when the electorate punished her for imposing a period of autocratic rule known as the Emergency, was in power from 1966 until her assassination in 1984. Another hereditary succession followed, as her son Rajiv Gandhi was appointed Prime Minister within the same day. His widow, Sonia Gandhi, has been President of the party since 1998 and is widely seen as the real power behind the administration of Manmohan Singh, who has been Prime Minister since she appointed him in 2004.
While the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has been popular enough to keep winning elections, there has been a growing dissatisfaction among the Indian people that this entrenched political elite has been corrupted by its monopoly on power, and enjoying its wealth and privilege has lost touch with the lives of ordinary Indians.
Under the Indian constitution, elected politicians are disqualified from their seats if convicted of various crimes, including those related to corruption. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that disqualifications should take effect immediately, and that a convicted politician could not retain his seat even if he subsequently lodged an appeal.
Manmohan Singh’s government, which was already involved in a number of corruption scandals including those related to the allocations of coal mining rights and 2G licences, responded to the Supreme Court ruling by attempting to pass a bill overturning it, effectively protecting convicted politicians by allowing them to keep their seats while appeals processes were ongoing. When the bill failed to pass, it was returned in the form of an ‘ordinance’ to be signed into law directly by the President, bypassing parliament.
Aside from being a thoroughly wrong-headed policy to pursue in a nation so notoriously retarded by corruption, crime and the self-serving efforts of its pocket-lining establishment, the ordinance was also a massive strategic error for Singh’s already tainted government in the approach to this year’s election. With an estimated 1460 of 4807 politicians in the national and state legislatures facing criminal charges, it was widely seen as an indefensible attempt by an out-of-touch administration to protect its own kleptocratic interests at the expense of the nation.
The ordinance was dropped after it was publicly denounced by the latest scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty: Rahul, son of Rajiv and Sonia, elected parliamentarian and Vice President of the Congress party. By speaking out against the ordinance, Rahul positioned himself as a representative of the next generation of Congress, unsullied by the corrupt practices of the older establishment. While the party has not named a Prime Ministerial candidate for the election, Manmohan Singh has ruled himself out, and it is widely believed that Rahul will be appointed if the party were to win.
That was the narrative being given by the India press while I was there, that Rahul Gandhi’s leadership of the party for the election would remove the stain of corruption and make it re-electable despite its unsatisfactory record and questionable decisions under Singh. The popular sentiment was a little different, however.
For one thing, since Rahul has not been openly declared as the leadership candidate, the decision remains in Sonia’s hands, as it has since 1998, and so most people see no transfer of power away from the old establishment at all.
For another, it doesn’t do much to dispel the perception of Congress as led by an arrogant, out-of-touch elite when the party’s choice of a ‘fresh face’ is the fifth-generation representative of the family which has controlled it for all but six years since Independence.
Among the people I spoke to, Rahul is not seen as the promising young moderniser that the Congress narrative would like to present him as. Instead, he’s seen as a rich, privileged, equally-out-of-touch, gaffe-prone idiot. Like Boris Johnson, but even less plausibly electable.
That’s why I’m sceptical that the Indian voters are going to roll over and elect another Gandhi, leading another corrupt administration of Congress cronies. I’m not claiming Modi’s BJP would be any better – after all, they also supported the passage of the criminal politician-protecting ordinance – but I am saying that the Indian electorate is hungry for a change, and they seem to think Modi is offering it.