Changing political landscape in the run-up to the general elections

With an electorate of 814 million, India is readying itself for polls starting April 7 until May 12, 2014. The sheer size of the electorate, which is larger than all of Europe’s population, makes this election the largest the world has ever seen. The election will be conducted in nine staggered phases, and votes will be counted on May 16 with the results available by the end of the day. Now that poll schedules have been announced by the Election Commission, the model code of conduct will take effect until the election, which means that the current Cabinet can no longer make executive decisions.

Current polling                                                                                               

With little over a month left to polls, the political landscape in the country is abuzz with election rallies, strategic pre-poll alliances and populist manifestos. While 23 million first-time voters and several new political parties make it hard to predict which way the election will swing, the one outcome political commentators agree on is that there will likely be a hung Parliament.

According to an opinion poll released by ABP News and Nielsen, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is forecast to win the most seats in the Parliament, but will still fall short of a majority. It may secure as many as 217 seats in the Lok Sabha, 55 seats short of the 272 needed for a majority. The poll also predicts that the incumbent Indian National Congress (INC) will get only 73 seats, its worst ever performance, and that regional parties would split the remaining 253 seats, an increase from the 216 seats they currently control.

The year-old Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) may also win a substantive presence in the Lok Sabha. While some opinion polls predict that the AAP phenomenon will be limited to Delhi legislature elections, results of the India Today Group-C-Voter Opinion Poll show that the AAP is making rapid headway in urban pockets across India. Eighty-nine percent of those polled across the country were aware of the AAP, an impressive level of popularity given the Party’s brief history. In another survey, around 70 percent of voters said they were satisfied with the AAP’s actions during its brief tenure in government in Delhi. A previous poll, conducted by IPSOS for ABP News soon after Kejriwal's resignation, also found that AAP was likely to win about two-thirds of votes in the re-election to the Delhi Assembly, as well as a comfortable majority of votes from Delhi in the Lok Sabha election.

Political deal-making and strategic mergers

Aware that they have little hope of forming a majority on their own in the national election, both key contenders are busy looking at pre-poll alliances to bolster their chances to form the next government.

Counting heavily on regional parties, the BJP is looking to forge deals with regional leaders in at least nine states, which together account for 255 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats. In Maharashtra, the Party has sealed a five-party alliance with the Shiv Sena and a few smaller parties. In addition, it is trying to convince the Maharasthra Navnirman Sena (MNS), a break-away group of Shiv Sena, not to field candidates in the Lok Sabha elections. In Bihar, since its partnership with Janata Dal (United) fell through, the BJP has sought a tie-up with Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), another key political formation. Bihar has 40 seats in the Lok Sabha and is therefore a significant bloc that both Congress and BJP are fighting to gain control over. The Congress is believed to have finalized an arrangement with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD); Congress’s partnership with the RJD in 2004 allowed them to sweep a majority of seats in Bihar.

Andhra Pradesh, with 42 seats, will also be a key state. While the Congress has a stronghold in the Telangana region of the state, it is bound to take a beating in the Seemandhra region – which has 25 seats – for having engineered the bifurcation of the state. The BJP, which was early to take a pro-Seemandhra stance, in conjunction with the regional Telugu Desam Party (TDP), will have the upper hand in Seemandhra.

Other states that the BJP is actively looking to forge alliances in include Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Assam and Punjab.

Taking advantage of the fact that neither of the heavyweight national parties can muster a majority, several key regional parties are exploring the option of joining together to form an alternative, the Third Front. Eleven smaller parties, including the Samajwadi Party, which is currently in power in Uttar Pradesh – one of India’s most populous states – and the Janata Dal (United), which is the ruling government in Bihar, agreed in February to campaign as a bloc in the national polls. However, the bloc will likely have difficulty reconciling the competing priorities of its coalition members and presenting a united front.

Luring voters with economic promises

As parties work to build coalitions ahead of the polls, they are also working overtime to propose economic agendas that will appeal to voters. Given the severe censure Congress faces for mismanagement and slowdown in growth, all parties are keen to build a political plank that rests on economic revival and good governance. The traditional rivals, Congress and the BJP, along with the new AAP, unveiled their economic priorities at a recent National Council meeting organized by the Confederation of Indian Industries and attended by the country’s business community.

The incoming government will inherit an economy growing near the slowest pace in a decade, coupled with double-digit inflation and a weak rupee. While the initial drafts of the various economic policy documents do not outline any concrete next steps for economic growth, it is amply clear that India’s political class recognizes the need for action and that the next government will have to deliver on its promises.