Gandhi vs Modi: the race enters its final stage

Political discourse has all but evaporated in perhaps the most divisive general election for decades.
By Ashish Mehta
Sun 11 May 2014 09:43 AM

India faces a leadership famine. People in a country of well over a billion are obsessed with just two individuals: Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi.

Opponents of Modi, who is the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (“BJP”) and its allies (collectively known as the National Democratic Alliance “NDA”) have pulled out all the stops to prevent him from becoming the next prime minister. Whether at the state level or at the national level, they are leaving no stone unturned to prevent a man they see as being a hugely divisive figure from winning a mandate to run the country. As a result, political discourse has reached a new low.

Whether Modi wins or loses, he will always be seen as a politician who has split the people of India into two groups – the pro-Modi and the anti-Modi.

In truth, there are several Modis. There’s the current chief minister of Gujarat, who is serving his third consecutive term, and who claims that his mantra for success in the state has been development and good governance. Then there’s the Modi who is being repeatedly bashed by the Congress Party and its allies. Finally, there’s the Modi who says he is an ordinary Indian, who rose through the ranks at the BJP due to his hard work, commitment, perseverance, focus, political acumen, and who faced extreme competition and sabotage from within his own party and external opponents. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it seems that Modi believes in the doctrine that ‘kites rise highest against the wind’. By comparison, Rahul Gandhi is the undisputed leader of his Congress Party; the Congress Party without a Gandhi (or a Nehru) is like a car without an engine. Gandhi’s personal integrity has remained spotless and he has successfully managed to keep his core team largely invisible and away from any controversy.

Can Modi convert the crowds into votes? In the history of modern India no other person who has been a candidate to be the next prime minister has polarised the country as much as he has. Modi could even be said to be bigger than his own party. If we trust the opinion polls conducted by a series of agencies, the NDA is likely to improve greatly upon its performance in the last elections but is likely to just fall short of the magical number of 272 seats required in the lower house of the parliament to form a government by majority. If the NDA forms the next government after achieving these 272 seats, Modi may emerge as a strong prime minister.

However if the NDA fails to hit that target, he may well be forced to return to Gujarat as a weak chief minister of the state. Time and again the electorate has given a fractured mandate to the political parties, which has resulted in a coalition government. The electorate must give a majority mandate either to the Congress Party or the BJP otherwise the people will again have to put up with a series of poor excuses about the difficulties of working inside the confines of a coalition government.

Are the odds against the Congress Party? Well, the Congress Party is carrying the burden of its own poor governance during the tenure of this government, including - but not limited to - corruption scams and the anti-incumbency factor. It is evident that during its decade-long rule the Congress Party’s own prime minister, who is a person of few words, is generally respected by most as a leader of personal integrity, who claims to know his economics but whose politics and economics have gone astray over the last five years. Most pre-poll surveys of the electorate conducted by various media and marketing agencies indicate a deep yearning for a change. Change is a constant phenomenon in a true democracy. Some prominent ministers of the Congress Party have conveniently decided not to contest the elections this time. Is this a coincidence or are they scared they are going to lose? The Congress Party will play the role of an effective and aggressive opposition party in the parliament if NDA forms the government. Newton’s old adage, ‘what goes up must come down’, certainly holds true when it comes to the fortunes of political parties in any true democracy. The perception is that the Congress Party is down but is certainly not out, and possesses the will and capability to bounce back to power in the near future. It is evident that Rahul Gandhi can only lead the government through remote control or by becoming the prime minister of India. The Congress Party must achieve an absolute majority in any general election for Rahul Gandhi to accept the job of prime minister. Gandhi will not expose himself to a situation where he is at the mercy of smaller regional parties for survival of a government headed by him. On the other hand, if the Congress manages to somehow form the government this time, the mother-and-son duo will break the record of Rahul Gandhi’s grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, who won three elections in a row.

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Will Modi be able to keep his promises to the electorate? Their expectations are certainly high. Modi’s ability to live up to most of the aspirations of the electorate in Gujarat by no means guarantees his ability to produce the same performance nationwide. Gujarat is his home state, where the BJP enjoys a strong majority and he has absolute administrative control to execute his decisions. Modi’s ability to keep his promises will greatly depend on whether the NDA achieves the required majority of 272 seats in the lower house. Failing that, Modi will encounter a series of stumbling blocks that will limit his ability to deliver on his promises on a pan-India level. Modi’s mantra for solving all problems is development and good governance. Repeatedly he has promised ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’. But the stakes are high; if he delivers, he will aim to win the next general election and get a second term as prime minister. If he loses, Brand Modi could vanish forever or be sent packing back to Gujarat.

As the countdown of the results of this election begins, 16 May is the big day when the poll results will be announced by India’s Election Commission. Both the NDA and the Congress Party and its allies are anxiously waiting for this date as it will help determine who will form the next government. Aggressive lobbying and serious negotiations will commence from 16 May onwards by the NDA and the Congress Party in order to obtain support from other parties to form the next government, if they fall short of that 272-seat target.

Is social media a blessing or a curse? Social media has given a voice to the voiceless. Political analysts and gurus, plus spokespeople of the various parties, regularly appear in the media. Much of the election coverage has made reference to some politician’s website, or to Twitter and personal blogs, clearly indicating the importance and relevance given to social media by media and the electorate. So far this election has witnessed a big surge in the number of people who will cast their vote, which is estimated at about 10 percent more compared to the last election. Data suggests there may be over 120 million first-time voters this time round. It is understood that there is a disillusionment amongst the youth, who are expected to gravitate toward the BJP, attracted by his message of aspiration and Modi’s past performance in Gujarat.

Today’s Election Commission of India is not merely a constitutional rubber stamp and has a herculean task to effectively carry out a massive logistical and oversight exercise required to enable about 850 million people to exercise their right to vote, in nine phases. Compared to the past, the Election Commission of India wields enormous regulatory power which allows it to curb electoral malpractices, including but not limited to: muscle power, bribery, vandalism and vote-rigging. It can also impose sanctions on politicians for committing any violations of the electoral code.

What the Election Commission cannot, of course, do is tell the electorate who to vote for. Only the electorate, at their sole and absolute discretion, have to decide whom to vote for, and the majority of the electorate has already cast their vote, and whilst we don’t yet know who the winner is, we can be sure of one thing: the clock is ticking on the political careers of either Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi.

Ashish Mehta is a practising lawyer and a political analyst, based in Dubai and New Delhi.

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