Two old men, two young men and a woman who now rules the largest state in India. The story of the 15th general election in India, which stretches over a month from 16 April to 16 May when the votes are counted, can be summed up in the personalities and actions of these five people.
The first old man is the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, 76. His supporters like his low-key style, his clean image and his economist’s erudition. His critics say he has been a weak leader, and that real power has rested with Sonia Gandhi, widow of the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and head of the Congress Party, though Singh remains the official prime ministerial candidate of Congress.
The second old man is Lal Krishna Advani, 81, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He comes across as strong, disciplined, clean and committed to the Hindutva ideology. But he is also viewed as a hardliner, the man who launched the divisive majoritarian agenda of the BJP by leading the 1992 march on Ayodhya, in which Hindu zealots pulled down the Mughal-era Babri Mosque to build a temple in its place.
The election campaign for the 15th Lok Sabha has become almost presidential, both Congress and the BJP projecting the virtues of their prime ministerial candidates in a country that follows the Westminster model. Yet it is highly unlikely that the virtues or failures of these two men will determine the number of seats the Congress Party or the BJP wins.
In a country where 40 per cent of the population is under 35, the performance of two young men, both great-grandsons of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, has drawn far more attention. Dressed in white kurta pyjamas, Sonia Gandhi’s son Rahul is portrayed as a future prime minister. His dimpled face features on all Congress election material, even though he is officially just the party’s general secretary. He rarely courts controversy, says little and spends his time trying to “discover” India. Yet, the media still follow his every step, and it is evident he understands the role that India’s dynastic politics demands of him.
His first cousin Varun Gandhi, son of Indira Gandhi’s younger son, Sanjay, is the opposite. Habitually in black, with a dramatic red smear on his forehead, Varun has courted trouble and possible disqualification over a recording of a vitriolic hate speech, during which he used derogatory language about Muslims. As a result, the BJP candidate from Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh is familiar throughout the country.
Despite contrasting ideologies, neither Rahul nor Varun has rejected dynastic politics. Both are clearly using political pedigree to carve out a place in Indian politics (Varun is standing in the constituency that his mother represented for five terms).
Singh and Rahul, Advani and Varun, illustrate both the change and the continuity of the fault lines that continue to dominate Indian politics. Although the parties do not differ greatly on economics, Congress maintains an inclusive and non-sectarian image while the BJP remains unapologetically majoritarian.
The person who might well hold the key to the next government is Mayawati, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.
A former schoolteacher, Mayawati has consolidated her support among India’s Dalits (formerly known as Untouchables), the caste to which she belongs. Having established her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), she has now expanded her appeal to other castes. UP elects 80 MPs and it is expected that as many as 50 will be from Mayawati’s party. At the moment, she remains equidistant from both Congress and the BJP, but in a hung parliament of 552 members, she could well be the kingmaker, if not queen herself.
Mayawati’s dominant presence in the elections is an important example of another factor that makes predicting the outcome so difficult: the growing strength of regional parties such as the BSP, which have bases in one or more states but lack a “national” presence. Their growth and consolidation has eaten into the support of both Congress and the BJP, and has made coalition governments inevitable.
The process began in 1989, but not until 1999, when the BJP came to power with a collection of other smaller parties under the banner of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), did anyone believe that coalitions could last their term. The NDA did; and so has the recent United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the Congress Party and formed in 2004.
With neither the BJP nor Congress confident of coming to power on its own, the key to the next government lies even more in the hands of these regional parties. The bigger ones, like Mayawati’s BSP, are keeping their options open. Other parties talk of the possibility of a Third Front that would oppose both Congress and the BJP.
Indian politics has already shown that neither friends nor enemies are for ever. This time, rhetoric apart, every regional party is showing a flexibility and willingness to manoeuvre that is derailing any attempts by the political managers of the Congress Party and the BJP to strategise and pre-emptively build coalitions. The real story of this election will only be told on 16 May, when the votes are counted. No one, not even the most prescient of political pundits, dares predict what that day will bring.
Kalpana Sharma is a Mumbai-based journalist and columnist