India sets up a big contest

Although the year is only four days old, we already know what the biggest election of 2014 will be. India will vote sometime before the end of May, and with more than 700 million voters on the roll, an Indian election is the biggest election in the world. Its nearest competitor, the European Union (which also has elections in the first half of this year), has an electorate only about half the size.

Since 2004, India has been governed – as it has for most of the time since independence – by the Congress Party. Its leader, Manmohan Singh, became prime minister at the age of 71; now 81, he has not surprisingly announced that this will be his last election and that later in the year he will hand over the leadership. The new leader is universally expected to be Congress’s current vice-president, Rahul Gandhi.

At one level, Gandhi certainly has the credentials for the job: his father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all prime ministers. Singh, in fact, has been Congress’s only successful leader from outside the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, and to some extent he has had to share power with Sonia Gandhi, Rahul’s mother, who serves as party president.

At this stage, however, it looks as if Congress’s future leadership will be of mostly academic interest, since the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a strong favorite to win the election. In a series of state elections held late last year, Congress was routed, with big gains for the BJP and a new anti-corruption party, Aam Admi or “Common Man”. Opinion polls have shown Congress and its allies set to lose maybe 140 seats.

Indian politics, however, is a complicated business – it could hardly be otherwise in such a huge and diverse country. The BJP is most unlikely to win a majority in its own right; to take government it will depend upon a range of unruly allies, regional parties and independent forces.

On the other hand, Indian voters are capable of delivering surprises. Congress’s 2004 victory was unexpected, as was the strength of its support last time. Although Congress and the BJP have won just under half the vote between them in the last two elections, their respective coalitions have still been able to dominate the parliament. One of the big unknowns this year will be whether Aam Admi or some other third force will seriously challenge that.

Nor is it clear how much of a policy shift a BJP government would bring. Nominally, Congress is secular and centre-left while the BJP is more aligned with business interests and with Hindu nationalism. But liberalisation in India has been a largely bipartisan project over the last couple of decades; the policy of opening up the country’s economy was set in train by Singh as finance minister in the early 1990s, but continued by the BJP government in 1998-2004.

The main complaints against Singh’s government seem to centre on corruption and incompetence rather than any particular policy direction. Conversely, BJP leader Narendra Modi – who is usually tagged with adjectives like “controversial” in news reports – has stressed mostly non-ideological themes.

Last September, Modi said the election would be a “conflict between dynasty and democracy.” But Congress is just as capable of playing hardball, with Singh yesterday describing his opponent as “Someone who presided over the massacre of innocent people” – a reference to the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat state, where Modi is chief minister.

It’s going to be a contest well worth watching.

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