As 900 million voters, braving the Indian summer, exercise their voting rights over seven phases to deliver their verdict on the current incumbent – this election will be the one to bring into sharp relief the fragmentary nature of Indian politics.
While discursively this will be presented as the world’s largest democracy once again coming together to legitimise its normative commitments, the elections will also demonstrate why 2014 may have been an aberration; when for the first time in three decades a single party, the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP), were able to form government in their own right.
For the incumbent, that ‘black swan’ moment is a distant dream as Indian politics shifts back to the sometimes bewildering complexity of alliances, tie-ups and seat-sharing arrangements.
In 2014 Prime Minister Narendra Modi rode to power riding a huge wave of anti-corruption, development and the promise of a new India. Over the last five years, the government has waxed lyrical about every single initiative the Prime Minister has undertaken.
In a media-saturated political landscape, with a proliferation of opinion-makers in print, on television and digital platforms, it has often been difficult to decipher the nuances between fact and opinion, reality and spin.
But just when it should matter most, those narratives have been pushed into the background.
This isn’t to say that all these schemes have been a failure, it only reveals that the incumbent isn’t confident that its track record can bring a decisive election victory.
A cautionary note for these times is: never equate the daily news cycle with the electoral prospects, particularly in a country as complex as India.
Finding itself on the back foot on issues of jobs, farmer distress and the economy, the ruling BJP’s re-election campaign has attempted to change the terrain of the battle to one on which it’s most comfortable – Pakistan, terrorism, corruption and questioning patriotism of those who query or criticise the government.
Prime Minister Modi wouldn’t like to be questioned on his ability to deliver on the promises he made when he came to power in 2014. Instead the default trope is to create an atmosphere of anxiety where the government is persistently engaged in mortal combat with both external and internal enemies.
In 2014, the BJP came to power by virtually “othering” India’s largest minority community, the Muslims.
The party fielded just seven candidates from Islamic backgrounds across the country’s 543 parliamentary districts, despite Muslims making up roughly 14 per cent of India’s population.
The disenfranchisement of Muslims has been so complete that even the main opposition party, the Congress, is shy of treading on the minority question lest it’s tarnished by the tag of a ‘Muslim’s party’ and thereby risk consolidating the Hindu vote in the BJP.
Since the Congress isn’t going to engage the BJP on this mass exclusion of a significant minority from the nation’s polity, Narendra Modi gets a free pass to mould the terms and tenor of the debate related to the ‘enemy other’.
In an atmosphere of anxiety, this ‘other’ is sometimes code for the Pakistanis or the Bangladeshis, or even those who can be associated with the “other” by faith, religion or even basic camaraderie.
As a strategy this could have worked exceedingly well for the BJP and this year’s election results should have been a foregone conclusion by now. But it is in the very fragmentary nature of India’s politics that the ruling party faces its most formidable opposition.
Even though it is a national general election and the BJP has tried its best to make 2019 a mandate for Prime Minister Modi akin to a presidential system, on the ground the nature of the battle is very dispersed.
Modi’s juggernaut has to encounter a slew of powerful state leaders who are willing to put up a strong fight against him.
None of these state leaders have pan-India support, but cumulatively they are capable of making a dent in the BJP’s hopes of crossing the 272 seat mark, the number the party needs in the Lok Sabha (parliament) to form government on its own.
The main opposition party, the Congress, hasn’t forged any alliance in states where it is in direct contest with the BJP – areas like Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat.
But, it has managed to stitch together seat-sharing arrangements in states like Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Jharkhand where other regional parties dominate and the Congress’s presence isn’t very strong.
The idea is to strengthen the Index of Opposition Unity (a measure of how united opposition parties are against the current government), the absence of which was one of the fundamental reasons behind BJP’s sweeping victory in 2014.
However, it’s in the state of Uttar Pradesh where the impact of the alliances will determine whether the BJP can once again emerge as the party to gain a majority on its own in 2019.
Two arch-rivals, Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have come together along with the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) to form an alliance against the BJP.
It’s in this battleground state that the BJP mopped up 71 out of the 80 seats in 2014 but where the ruling party now faces its toughest challenge against an alliance that looks formidable both on paper and on the ground.
As the 2019 elections gets underway one thing is for sure, the BJP managed to get a landslide victory in 2014 because of the opposition’s inability to stitch up alliances in a number of key states.
Considering it’s a make or break election for many political parties, they have been astute enough not to repeat the same mistake. Two of the most consequential states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, is where the nature of alliance politics and its impact on the 2019 elections will be most keenly felt.
It will also be a test case for the famed Indian voter to exercise their judgment in deciding what kind of India they aspire to.
This article was co-published with the University of Melbourne’s Election Watch.
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