RAMESH THAKUR. India’s General Election: A Preview

This article previews India’s forthcoming general election on three dimensions. First, I describe India’s election machinery and logistics, something that Australia could learn a lot from if it were not for the embedded subconscious racism that rejects the very possibility of an advanced white democracy learning from a poor Asian developing country. Second, I outline the issues that are likely to dominate the campaign over the next two months. And finally, I look at the state of play at the moment with regard to the prospects of the two competing coalitions.

On Sunday, the Election Commission of India (ECI) announced the poll schedule. Let me repeat that. The ECI, not the PM or the government, announced the dates of the election, although the government still chooses the date on which the current Parliament’s term ends. This takes away, not all, but certainly one important advantage of incumbency.

The ECI is the world’s most powerful and consequential electoral organisation. It is a constitutional office. Its constitutional status elevates its authority, importance and stature. The Chief Election Commissioner is given security of tenure on par with the judges of the Supreme Court of India. The Constitution also makes it mandatory for the federal and state governments to make available, on request, ‘such staff as may be necessary for the discharge’ of the ECI functions.

The ECI is responsibile for delimiting more than 500 parliamentary and over 3000 state assembly constituencies, organising and conducting national and state elections, recognising political parties, establishing procedures for the nomination of candidates, and registering all eligible voters.

It also drafts a Model Code of Conduct that kicked in as soon as the election schedule was announced. This governs the entirety of elections, from political speeches and rallies to manifestos, polling booths, general conduct and social media. Among its requirements: no public meeting can be held in the final two days before the vote; the religion and caste of opponents must not be mentioned in campaigning; ruling parties in New Delhi and the states may not announce any new policy or project; cabinet ministers may not use official machinery or combine official visits with campaigning, or use public money for publicity or propaganda. Thus on Sunday evening Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman forswore her government car to get to Chennai airport, and took a commercial flight to New Delhi instead of a special aircraft. Officials were told to avoid the usual airport send-off and meet-and-greet duties.

The elections will be staggered over seven phases from 11 April to 19 May. Of 900mn+ eligible voters (!), around 65% will likely vote. Counting for all seats will begin on 23 May and we should know the overall outcome that evening. Contrast this with the drawn out and messy process in Australia.

The reason for the staggered voting, and a comment on the immense professional competence, organisational skill and integrity of the ECI, is the sheer scale of the exercise. The numbers are mind-numbing. The number of polling stations in 2014 was 913,000; there were 1.3mn electronic voting machines staffed by over 4mn election personnel; and security was overseen by 2mn plus police officers. The biggest constituency had 3mn people.

The ceiling on election expenses is around USD 100,000. Since most MPs will have spent 5-10 times that amount, this means that almost every single MP’s first official duty, the oath of office, will be a false declaration. And between one-quarter and one-third of MPs tend to have serious criminal cases pending in the courts.

In 2014 the charismatic but polarising Narendra Modi won because voters rejected the stale, populist and patronising politics of a corrupt Congress coterie around a cocooned first family. They were drawn instead to Modi’s promise that the country deserves and can do better. The biggest indictment of Congress may well be that Modi could never have been their prime ministerial candidate.

In so thoroughly cleansing the house of parliament of Congress MPs – down from 206 to 44! – voters decisively repudiated the politics of dynasty, inheritance, entitlement, corruption and sycophancy. Astonishingly, the Congress Party refused to regenerate by cutting the umbilical cord with the Gandhi family. The sycophants circled the Rahul Gandhi wagon and he was ‘unanimously’ chosen to be party leader. The fact that he managed to lead Congress to victory in some key state elections late last year to puncture Modi’s aura of invincibility does not negate the overall conclusion that the first family is the pathology, not the cure for the party’s terminal illness. Hence Modi taunts that for Congress, history falls into BC and AD: before Congress and after dynasty.

The cultural-intellectual elite feared he would unleash horrific sectarian violence; ordinary Indians hoped his victory portended development, growth, jobs, public probity and administrative competence. His policy agenda focussed on some market opening reforms, greater integration with the world economy, infrastructure development, public health and cleanliness, but not nearly enough. To be sure, India remains the world’s fastest growing major economy, but it is at least 1-2 percentage points slower in its growth trajectory because of the policy timidity and sops to populist subsidies and giveaways. The failure to conclude a free trade agreement with Australia despite a decade-long negotiations is itself symptomatic of the country’s chronic incapacity to make and implement tough decisions in a timely manner.

The elections are fought between two broad coalitions. The opposition United Progressive Alliance (UPA) will try to focus the elections on jobs and farmer distress. The BJP-centric ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will try to pivot to Modi’s decisive leadership, anti-corruption credentials and national security.

The NDA has the BJP at its core. The UPA has in the past formed around Congress, but with its size reduced so drastically and regional parties in the ascendant in some of the most populous states, it is difficult to predict which of the UPA constituents will form the largest bloc after the election. The NDA enters the fray with its PM candidate known. For the UPA, every regional satrap will have ambitions to be PM and so their choice of candidate for the top job cannot be known before the vote. This is a considerable handicap in any modern democracy.

In a Times of India poll last month, respondents overwhelmingly expected a Modi-led NDA government to be back in power. Modi is preferred to Rahul Gandhi as PM tenfold. Nevertheless Modi is faulted for the failure to create jobs, his quixotic demonetisation decision and the rise in Hindu intolerance across the country. The latest poll by the Zee group, published on Sunday, foresees a hung parliament. The NDA is forecast to win 264 seats (273 is the magic number to cross the line for a majority) and the UPA will win 165. However, the poll bounce after the clash with Pakistan last month could see the NDA secure an absolute majority once again.

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2 Responses to RAMESH THAKUR. India’s General Election: A Preview

  1. James Satrapa says:

    To clarify my last sentence, my intention was to cite Clinton and Trump as candidates who were also not worthwhile.

  2. James Satrapa says:

    This is a puzzling article. Fair enough it is about India’s exemplary electoral system, but the commentary on the BJP and its leader seems heavily glossed over. The BJP is an extreme right wing religious nationalist party that has demonised and marginalised the entire Muslim population, and dragged Hinduism into a territory of intolerance it has rarely if ever inhabited in its multi-millennial history.

    Moreover, it has significant misogynistic elements as evidenced by the recent huge demonstration by women in Kerala (roughly one third of the female population of that state – so clearly an issue that struck a major nerve) in response to the BJP’s attempt to restrict women from entering the Sabarimala Temple, even after a court specifically overruled the BJP’s ban.

    The BJP is a direct descendant of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an anti-Muslim organisation to which Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Vinayak Godse belonged. There is also the case of its leader’s deeply questionable role in the Gujarat riots that kickstarted the rise of the BJP.

    Ramesh Thakur also states that “India remains the world’s fastest growing major economy, but it is at least 1-2 percentage points slower in its growth trajectory slower in its growth trajectory because of the policy timidity and sops to populist subsidies and giveaways”. Apart from China, perhaps, although that country’s over-leveraged economy is obviously cooling. However, GDP growth – if that is the measure Thakur uses – is a very primitive measure of growth, and in any case, economic growth in India is extremely patchwork. As one commentator put it, India is like some Californias surrounded by a sea of poverty. It shares, to an extreme, the characteristic two speed economy of many countries including the USA where the benefits of economic growth are monopolised by the few at the expense of the many.

    This is a puzzling article because almost every other article by Ramesh I’ve read has made so much sense. Why comment on the BJP and Modi at all if it was of such brevity as to be virtually useless as a source of information? Why comment on the economy when aggregated figures are so misleading?

    My takeaway from the article otherwise is while the best electoral system in the world purportedly prevents significant electoral fraud, it does not per se produce a healthy political culture or ensure that the voters have worthwhile candidates from which to choose, such as was the case in 2016 with Clinton and Trump.

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