SPECIAL REPORT

India polls: Change is in the air

Congress is in danger of its worst showing since independence, while BJP grows from strength to strength

 

DELHI'S landscape is littered with the remnants of dynasties.

In the north of the city is In-draprastha, capital of the Hindu kings of the Mahabharata epic, which dates back 5,000 years. To the south stands the fluted arabesques of the Qutb Minar, the minaret erected in the late 12th century by the Muslim slave king Qutbuddin Aibak from where began the city's fascinatingly syncretic culture. In the heart of New Delhi, from where India is administered today, Delhi Golf Club members hack on amid the tombs of sleeping Mughals.

From all available accounts, the staggered national polls that begin on April 7 may well add one more to that hoary list when the results are announced on May 16: the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. For the Indian National Congress, the party of Independence whose early lights included the barrister Motilal Nehru, and whose son Jawaharlal, granddaughter Indira Gandhi and great-grandson Rajiv Gandhi were all prime ministers, is approaching the polls at its weakest ever.

Weighed down by a string of corruption scandals, hurt by political miscalculations in key Congress bastions such as the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, unable to lower inflation, guilty of poorly designed economic policies that have caused growth to slow and capital to flee, the party of freedom is on the ropes.

Opinion polls show Congress poised for what could be its worst showing in 16 national elections since independence in 1947. The Pew Research Centre says Indians favour the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition group, over Congress by a margin of 63 to 19.

A poll for NDTV, a private news channel headed by Prannoy Roy, one of India's earliest psephologists, takes a kinder view. It says BJP could take 196 seats to Congress's 105 in the 543-seat Lower House of Parliament. Seasoned observers think Congress would be lucky to bag 70 seats. In Delhi, for instance, Congress is poised to be routed in all seven parliamentary seats.

Which way India's 814 million eligible voters decide over the next six weeks has global ramifications, particularly for Asia. With a population as large as China's, Asia's second-most powerful military and third-largest economy, India stands at a crossroads.

A solid vote for opposition front runner Narendra Modi could hand India a strong government capable of tough decisions on several fronts, from fixing India's infrastructure and labour laws to providing an investor-friendly climate and improving ties with key neighbours China and Pakistan. Strengthening demand from India spells good news for every sector of the Asian economy - from exports to tourism.

Certainly, Mr Modi, one of India's most controversial politicians and long-serving chief minister of the industrial state of Gujarat, is man enough for the job, even for a vast and complex nation like India.

A strong orator and practical-minded administrator whose pro-industry policies have given Gujarat the moniker Guangdong of the West, Mr Modi has galvanised the BJP, extending its draw to the southern states of India where powerful regional groups have held sway.

In Tamil Nadu, once home to powerful anti-Hindi and anti-north instincts, the Hindi-speaking Modi has drawn standing room-only crowds, with many willing to pay a token price to attend his rallies whereas local parties frequently have to bus in the crowd with promises of money and alcohol.

But he stands sullied by having watched over one of the worst

riots in the past quarter-century. For this reason, in multi-religious India, where Muslims are nearly a sixth of the 1.2 billion populace, there will always be a question mark against his name.

The other failing is a famous impatience and a dictatorial streak, particularly in dealing with independent-minded figures, traits that are already causing turmoil in BJP.

Two weeks ago, after he was denied a ticket from his traditional seat in Barmer, Rajasthan, former BJP foreign, defence and finance minister Jaswant Singh filed papers as a defiant independent candidate.

"There was a time I was one of only two BJP MPs in Parliament and watched the party grow from there on," Mr Singh said, wiping tears. "This is not the BJP I knew."

But India, desperately seeking strong leadership, does not seem to care. This week, Mr Modi drew big crowds in the north-eastern state of Assam, topping the numbers in rallies addressed by Mrs Sonia Gandhi, Mr Rahul Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Neither do investors, it would seem. While India's economic fundamentals have hardly changed - indeed the latest manufacturing data is worrying - the Mumbai Sensex, the benchmark index, is soaring to record after record as polls approach. Global money managers are punting on Indian stocks, leading to an inflow of money that has helped the rupee, one of the worst-performing currencies last year, strengthen significantly. Some think the currency could gain as much as 30 per cent against the US dollar this year.

Still, there are good reasons for caution. First, should BJP not get a convincing mandate and have to rely on small groups to garner a majority, a period of political instability may result. This is one reason that companies such as Tata Steel, which imports 80 per cent of its coking coal, are increasing their foreign exchange hedging.

Second, Mr Modi's acceptance by the minorities cannot be taken for granted, even if Muslims in his own state have warmed to him in recent years.

Flawed as it may be, the Congress party still continues to embody the idea of India, built on secularism, inclusiveness and a broad tolerance.

But the party, even as it slams Mr Modi as poison to the Indian fabric, has no convincing antidote to offer. Its old political formulation to aggregate support, known by the acronym KHAM - upper-caste Kshatriyas, outcaste Harijans or Dalits, Adivasi tribals and Muslims - stopped working years ago. It does not have a new formula.

Muslims deserted the party after 1992, when it failed to prevent Hindu nationalist mobs backed by BJP from destroying a historic mosque in an attempt to build a Hindu temple on the site. While that memory has eased with time, there are many claimants today for the votes of the under-privileged and Muslims.

One of those is the Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man's Party, promoted by former civil servant Arvind Kejriwal, a Magsaysay laureate. Mr Kejriwal has succeeded in garnering support from a broad range of people - from top bankers and IT professionals to rickshaw pullers. And even as his charisma has begun to wear thin because of his anarchist ways - as Chief Minister of Delhi he led a picket of his own police force and quit the job after 49 days - he still has key pockets of influence.

The damage could be lasting for Congress. Indeed, it may never recover.

Party chief Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv's widow and dowager duchess of the Nehru-Gandhi legacy, is asthmatic and in poor health. Her son Rahul, vice-president of the party and heir-apparent, lacks charisma and is caught between multiple identities. One day he is a stubbled-chin rustic who sleeps out on the string cots of undercaste folk in the dusty hinterland. Another time he is a high-living princeling who thinks nothing of getting his government-provided Special Protection Group personnel to seal off a key boulevard in New Delhi so he and his mates can race around on high-powered motorcycles in the dead of night.

His sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, is seen by some as a more natural politician, her charisma reminding many of their grandmother Indira Gandhi, renowned as a woman of strength and daring. But, for now, she is content being a mother. Besides, a good part of India's 814 million voters were either too young, or not born, when Indira was assassinated in 1984, limiting Priyanka's appeal.

Congress-wallahs can be expected to stay loyal up to a point, but before too long, they will look elsewhere if the emperor has no votes. Ultimately, electability is the key in any democracy.

To be sure, elections are known to have thrown up surprises and this time too there will be a few. In 2004, the BJP-led government of Atal Behari Vajpayee was confident it would return to power on the strengths of a booming economy and the party's "India Shining" campaign. Instead, it was the Congress coalition that staged an upset victory.

Likewise, in 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, certain that the government would not be re-elected, had even identified his retirement home, only to be retained in office.

This time, though, even the most optimistic soothsayers offer little hope to the ruling party.

Indians are clamouring for change and determined to have it.

velloor@sph.com.sg

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