India Gears Up for Election Season

India will go to the polls to choose a new government in less than a month in what might be the country’s most important election in a generation. India’s challenge is twofold. The first challenge is the rising wave of social, ethnic, and class-based polarization that stems from the influence of caste, religion and kinship in Indian politics. Politicians have been inattentive to new social tensions created by industrialization and rapid economic growth. The other challenge is India’s dithering economic growth, which has been below five percent for the fifth consecutive quarter. Companies that borrowed heavily abroad are facing bankruptcy; whole sellers and retailers are stuck with unsold stocks; small and medium-sized companies are closing every day. The construction industry is dormant. Subsidies are on the rise, causing an unmanageable fiscal burden, as are fuel and electricity prices.

Choice of Four

At this juncture, a four-sided rush to the center has tested the allegiances of the Indian electorate. The ruling Congress-led UPA coalition has found itself on the receiving end of widespread anger and frustration because of abysmal administration in its ten years at the helm. The middle-class, to safeguard its interests, has turned to Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), the largest opposition party in the country. The insurgent Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in New Delhi, has given hope to many that the corruption-ridden system can be changed. The Third Front, considered by many to be an alternative to the BJP and the Congress, could also impact the outcome of the election, although it is facing internecine fighting and a crisis of leadership.

A political party would need 272 seats out of 543 in the lower house of parliament to form an outright majority government. But no single party has been able to gather that many seats in the last twenty years, resulting in successive coalition governments. The four important fronts that will play a leading role in the formation of the new government are highlighted:

Indian National Congress

After two terms in office, India's oldest political party is facing a massive anti-incumbency wave. And sensing a defeat in the polls, many Congress members and allies have already started to jump ship.

The Congress sought credit for its role in carving out the new state of Telangana out of Andhra Pradesh. However, with the regional Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) party ruling out an alliance with the Congress the 17 seats in the region are up for grabs. 

Bharatiya Janta Party

Opinion polls show that the BJP is way ahead of the ruling Congress Party, but with under a month left before polling begins in India, the Hindu nationalist party is not certain of winning a majority on its own.

Narendra Modi's prime ministerial ambitions could depend on the BJP’s  ability to secure coalition partners – and the party has been working hard to strike mutually beneficial deals with as many regional players as possible. They have both failed and succeeded. On March 20, Bahujan Samaj Party broke away from the BJP and said it will field its candidates independently in all 80 of Uttar Pradesh’s seats. On the same day, the BJP announced it had forged an alliance with five regional parties from Tamil Nadu.

The BJP is also winning partners in other states. In West Bengal, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha has announced an alliance with the BJP while the Haryana Janhit Congress is already a BJP ally. Significant sections of the Asom Gana Parishad of Assam are breaking away and joining the BJP. Again, each one individually remains insignificant. But there is no doubting the cumulative effect they can have on the prospects of the BJP.

The Aam Aadmi Party

The AAP, formed last year by anti-corruption activists led by Arvind Kejriwal, triumphed and formed a government in New Delhi. Though a newcomer, it aspires to fill the political power vacuum generated by an anti-incumbent wave.

In all likelihood, the AAP will cut into BJP gains making government formation a difficult task for Narendra Modi. It poses a similar threat to the Congress. Ideologically, the AAP and Congress have similar motivations. But the AAP can offer a non-corrupt, non-dynastic and non-nepotistic profile, which the Congress cannot.

The AAP has significantly influenced the political discourse. There is unprecedented support in favour of anti-corruption and transparency in governance. However, the AAP has to first address a number of challenges before it can compete nationally with any of the established parties. Most importantly, it has to develop a party cadre all over the country that represents its political ambitions and demonstrates its ability to govern and work with other parties. It needs to have a clear national agenda that focuses on actual governance, not just populist rhetoric.

The Third Front

In late-February, eleven parties, including seven regional parties, formed a coalition with hopes of taking on India’s two main national parties. The coalition came at a time when opinion polls increasingly argued that regional political parties will play a significant role in forming the next government if the two national parties fell short of an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha.

One of the biggest weaknesses of the third front is not the lack of powerful politicians with mass support, but a surfeit of them. Lalu Prasad Yadav, former chief minister of Bihar put it: “In the third front, everyone wants to be the prime minister.” Consequently, in early March, the third front saw a break up when Jayalalithaa's AIADMK, Naveen Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and JD(S) broke ranks. Asom Gana Parishad, which had skipped the last meeting, is likely to join the BJP front. 

The coalition has 92 seats in the lower house. Congress has 201 while BJP has 112. But even if it manages to take power, a historical look at Indian politics shows such governments – that is, those that are not led by Congress or the BJP — have largely been unstable and unsuccessful in managing the country’s administration. Many have not been able to complete the full five-year term.

Looking forward

Campaigning for India’s national elections is in full swing. Parties have begun nominating candidates, though, the two major national parties - the ruling Congress and the opposition BJP - have not yet released their election platforms, or “manifestos”. This leaves voters and observers guessing at the domestic and foreign policy priorities of each.  

As India gets ready for the election, there is a growing sense that the country needs a new kind of politics. The BJP has branded itself as a development-driven solution to the neo-socialism of Congress, and the AAP’s anti-establishment philosophy resonates with many who have lost faith in Indian politics. The Third Front as a coalition of national and regional parties also appears to be a radical alternative.

The Indian electoral democracy has often perplexed most observers and understandably so. While no prediction is ever precise, one can now safely assume that the way the BJP is gathering alliance partners has put it in the driving seat of this electoral race. Conversely, the failure of the Congress to gather the confidence and allegiance of these small parties could prove costly to them this year.

Indians expect a stable government to fix the various obstacles to infrastructure development; address the structural issues and keep fiscal deficits low; streamline the numbing and cumbersome process constraints faced by businesses; and create a clearer, and fairer social and judicial system.

India has been ruled by coalitions since 1989 and the upcoming election could result in another hung parliament. In the era of coalition politics even a small parliamentary presence of 10-20 seats can change things significantly. Thirty-eight parties are currently represented in the Lok Sabha, eleven of which have 10-20 seats, making them central to the coalition that will form India’s soon to be decided 16th government.