Author : Niranjan Sahoo

Originally Published 2004-03-29 05:00:54 Published on Mar 29, 2004
The forthcoming general election is being watched with bated breath and ever increasing curiosity by different observers. Although the election arithmetic remains more or less the same as it was in 1999, the sheer intensity in which the election is being fought and the issues that are being contested in the public debate may have some implications on the future of Indian politics.
The Great Electoral Debate 2004: A Snapshot
The forthcoming general election is being watched with bated breath and ever increasing curiosity by different observers. Although the election arithmetic remains more or less the same as it was in 1999, the sheer intensity in which the election is being fought and the issues that are being contested in the public debate may have some implications on the future of Indian politics. The election is being fought between two loose coalitions; one led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the other led by the Congress. For BJP, the success would signal its arrival on the center stage. Never before has a non-Congress party won a consecutive second term after a five-year term. But a failure will mean the familiar reservations about its hawkish pro-Hindu image. Similarly, while success for the Congress will signify that it is on comeback trail, and defeat will be a shattering blow and may signal the beginning of end for grand old party of India. This apart, the current election is acquiring distinct tone for very many reasons; governance and development emerging as main election issues, role of technology and media spin doctoring in influencing voters' choice, Prime Ministerial debate, micro-management and host of other issues. Lets take a close look at different facets of the coming elections and the issues that dominate the public discourse.

Alliance Arithmetic

Coalition politics is the mantra of the current election. The key issue to watch in the forthcoming election is the ability of current ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress Party, its principal opponent, to adopt proper strategies and forge alliances with regional and splinter parties to form the next government at the center. Looking at the success of BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 1999 by pulling a majority and successfully running a coalition of 24 parties for full five year term, it can be assumed that coalition government has come to stay in Indian politics in some form or the other. In fact, the success of NDA coalition has significant impact on the Congress Party which in 1999 election had sought popular mandate on stability plank denouncing coalition politics. It is a changed party now. Realizing the fact that its social and ideological base are waning in several states particularly the Hindi belt, the Congress has woken up to the tasks of forming alliances with parties even compromising ideology. The alliance urgency is so much that the Congress is willing to play second fiddle to many regional parties. Apart from forming alliances with Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharasthra, Rasthriya Janata Dal and Jan Shakti in Bihar, it has gone two steps more and forged a pre-poll alliances with Dravid Munnetra Khazgam (DMK) ignoring the fact that it had pulled down the Gujral government on the allegation that the DMK extended support to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) during the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The BJP is not lagging behind in any way. It has gone farther and forged an alliance with Jayalalitha, ignoring the fact that she was the one who engineer the fall of Vajpayee's 13 months government in 1998. The implications of these developments are quite far reaching. First, the ongoing efforts of different parties to come to pre-poll alliances signals that coalition politics has come to stay and may become permanent feature of Indian politics in the manner as it is in France and Japan. Second, the emergence of a trend of 'multiple bipolarities'; two parties, the BJP and the Congress with their alliance partners (leaving few parties to fight on their own but would likely to join some formation once the election results are announced). Third, this also signals the beginning of the end of ideology base politics and the rise of pragmatic politics. In other words, election 2004 indicates a clean shift to coalition politics, and the electoral success would be judged by the ability of each formation together and translate alliance arithmetic into ballots.

Leadership Debate

Forging coalition, winning elections and running such government, all require a different kind of leadership. A leadership that can assimilate the diverse interests and demands of coalition partners and still run the government efficiently. While BJP claims that in Atal Bihari Vajpayee, they have someone who is a unifier; can bridge the differences of coalition and still run a successful coalition of 24 parties providing an economy boom and feel good era. Besides, the BJP would not leave the issues of Sonia's foreign origin and her inexperience in running the government particularly complex coalition government. Though issues like foreign origin are not the major issues in the current debate, yet the Congress cannot wish away its possible impact as a sizeable section of voters would like to see a natural citizen become the Prime Minister of the country. This is amply clear from the fact that some of the alliance partners like NCP who have problem with Sonia's foreign origin joined pre-poll alliances on condition that the decision on Prime Minister should be taken after election. And the Congress has not projected anybody as Prime Minister. This dilemma of the Congress led coalition to name a Prime Minister has been shrewdly manipulated by BJP strategists as weakness. They have raised the debate on the choice of Prime Ministership, in the same mould as Presidential debate in American elections. Though the contest in each constituency will be between the rival constituency candidates, not the respective party leaders as it is done in Presidential system, leadership question is bound to have some effect on the ongoing election processes.

Identity Politics Vs. Politics of Governance

The issues that have come to the fore during the ongoing debate in the forthcoming parliamentary elections indicate that identity politics, once dominant theme of Indian politics has taken backseat. During the previous elections, mandal, mandir and masjid were major issues. However, these have now been replaced by issues of development and good governance in the electoral debate. This could be something to do with the changing political culture and maturing of voters. For example, Congress's successful maneuvering of identity based politics targeting dalit and Muslims paid rich dividends as long as there were no caste based and regional political parties. Similarly, the BJP's can not now rely entirely on the Ayodhya issue as it did in the early 1990s. Development and good governance has come to such a significant place that a dalit supporting a Bahujan Samaj Party's candidate would expect his/her representative to address basic amenities - good roads, health care, social security schemes, etc. In short, for voters good governance is increasingly becoming the important parameter to judge the performance of a government. While BJP and its NDA partners are trying to cash on economic policies and achievements of the government and have issued much hyped slogan of 'feel good factor', the Congress and its allies are determined to highlight the failures of the coalition in spheres such as employment, agriculture and poor quality of basic services.

This is, however, not to say that identity politics based on caste, region and religion have become irrelevant in Indian politics. In several parts of the country particularly the 'cow belt', caste and class affiliations are likely to determine the political fate of a vast majority of the contestants. The BJP is expected to pursue a soft Hindutva line despite its increasing adherence to the issues of governance and growth. In other words, while the issues like good governance and development are likely occupy the center stage of public debate, the issue of identity would strongly remain in the background as each party would try to whip up emotion in the last minute.

No Takers for Radical Populism

It is more likely that, if anything else, the radical populism of earlier years would have no role to play in the forthcoming elections. This is because in several states it has resulted in draining exchequers and has, thus, turned prohibitively expensive. And most of the political parties have come some kind of realization that such populism is nor sustainable. Free electricity does not mean much when you don't have enough power to distribute and the voters would rather pay and get an assured supply than fall for promise and get anything. Further, as a result of heavy expenditures on staff salaries, social security measures and debt repayment, most of Indian states are in financial bankruptcy. As a result, neither the state governments and politicians are in a position to fuel high expectations, nor the voters to nourish such hope. Therefore, in various states of India, political parties are apprehensive of making promises on providing free electricity, a kilo rice for Rs.2, and similar goodies. This is a welcome change in the coming election.

Election Management

The outcome of recent elections to four state assemblies has brought a new debate altogether in the current electoral debate. The debate is that the Election 2004 is going to be a contest between two corporate giants, both with similar products to sell. The intensity of electoral competition is such that the focus is likely to be on the mechanics of electoral management, psychological warfare and media manipulation through spin doctoring. The political parties would do anything but opt for highly professionally managed research team to target each constituency with intensive survey, using money, leadership time, cadres, customized advertising and other strategies to swing a few thousands votes in their favour. While BJP has gone two steps ahead in this regard, the Congress is catching up fast. It would be interesting to watch the degree of innovation that the parties would introduce to this yet unexplored frontier.

Media Monitoring the Elections

Another significant debate is the possible impact of mass media particularly the ubiquitous TV channels on the final outcome of the elections. The common masses now have greater access to the mass media than ever before. This is largely due to the proliferation of private TV channels, particularly the vernacular-regional channels. The very dynamics of the television medium, especially with its telling visuals, would have dramatic impact on the minds of voters. An ordinary voter has opportunity to witness the live picture of his village roads with potholes, broken electric pole or the decade long un-repaired tube well and the by- lanes of his city. Media would not leave it there, it would go further to cover each constituency with local issues, bringing interface between candidates and the local population for a thorough scrutiny. This apart, media is capable of influencing public opinion and doctor swings through opinion polls and a host of other mechanisms. Further, as development and governance go on to occupy the center stage in public debate, the media's role assumes greater significance. The decisive point in the battle for 2004 would be to watch how successfully media is influencing political parties to put governance in their agenda and the public to make a choice.

An Watchful Civil Society

Thanks to an emergent and watchful civil society, the debate on forthcoming elections has gone to a new height. The Election 2004 would be different from earlier elections in the sense that a large number of civil society groups, media and citizen' groups have evinced the interest to monitor the electoral processes. Hundreds of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in collaboration with academic and research organizations have formed coalition under a banner of Election Watch. They are assessing and analyzing the disclosures made by contestants, creating awareness with a view to helping the voters in choosing cleaner and better representatives, etc. They are also mounting pressures on state apparatuses like Election Commission of India and Higher Judiciary to enforce the electoral reforms as recommended by various Committees. To recall, the recommendations of four important committees, viz. Dinesh Goswami Committee (1990), Indrajit Gupta Committee (1998) and the Law Commission Report (1999) for electoral reforms and the most recent effort in that direction is the recommendations of National Commission to Review the Working of Constitution are selectively sideline and partially implemented. While the higher judiciary particularly the Supreme Court, has taken an activist stand in its earlier judgment in May 2, 2002 on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition filed by the Lok Satta and People's Union for Civil Liberty (PUCL) by making disclosure of antecedents of the candidates contesting elections mandatory, the political class with equal unanimity, passed a resolution opposing the move. With more and more civil society groups joining the efforts to cleanse the body polity, and Higher Judiciary and Election Commission of India joining them in their efforts, it would be interesting to watch the real outcomes of such endeavors. The current election, however, is a test case for the Election Commission's relevance as an effective enforcing authority. Particularly with the Election Commission's clean record of not making any conclusive probe or disqualifying any candidate involved in electoral malpractice till date, it would be interesting to watch how it fares this time round.

Great Technology Debate

The first general elections since 1999 come to a time when India is increasingly connected via the Internet and cell phones. Thus the questions are being asked in a country where 70 per cent of people still live in villages, how technology can play a part in deciding the outcome of the current election? In a market where multiple TV channels will compete to provide saturation coverage of elections, can the Internet really play a role? The answer is yes in both the cases. For record, India has installed base of about 10 million computers, 30 million cell phones and its ever growing, a total 80 million telephone lines and more than 100 million TVs for a population base of more than 1 billion. And the 30 per cent of Indians belong to the age group of 20-35, which is mammoth, and large portions of them are hooked to technology. Nearly five crore voters in the 2004 elections would have actually been born after Indira Gandhi's assassination and they will vote on a better future than on prejudices or loyalties. And technology offers young Indians a platform to collectively brainstorm and participate in the electoral processes. In the great technology debate, leaders have become more as facilitators and custodians of process than just power figures. A new form of democratic dialogue between leaders and supporters is a possibility today thanks to TV channels, Internet and host of other modes. Thus, the key to election 2004 is who holds an upper hand in this technology warfare and capable of influencing this SMS generation. This would happen irrespective of the fact that it's the votes of India's vast majority; the illiterates which would decide the fate of any government. What matters however is that it is this microscopic minority which has the ability to energize the rest and has a decisive role in running of the government. In the current run up, the ruling BJP has taken an edge over Congress in launching high voltage techno-campaign via TV channels, cell phones, Internet and host of similar mechanisms. The Congress is however catching up fast.

In a nutshell, these could be some of the crucial strands of coming elections, but no full stop to the panorama called Indian election. Factors like caste affiliations, emotions, regional considerations, use of money, last minutes maneuvering and host of interrelated issues would have significant bearing on the outcome of current election. Keep guessing as the nation marches to a decisive verdict on 20th April 2004.

Niranjan Sahoo, Research Fellow, Institute of Politics and Governance, ORF.
E-mail: [email protected]

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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    Niranjan Sahoo

    Niranjan Sahoo

    Niranjan Sahoo, PhD, is a Senior Fellow with ORF’s Governance and Politics Initiative. With years of expertise in governance and public policy, he now anchors ...

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