Whose India?

Opinion polls and the satta bazaar alike predict a strong victory for Narendra Modi. How will the voters decide in the world’s largest democracy?


‘It’s gonna be a long, hot summer, we should be together’ –not ‘with our feet on the dashboard’, as Keith Urban’s country song suggests — but casting our vote to choose the best possible government for India. 

The onset of hot weather in India this year will see temperatures soaring as the world’s largest democracy gets into election mode. In what is proving to be a hotly contested and deeply divided one, the battle lines are clearly drawn. While the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) will fight to retain power, the longest ruling party, Congress, is looking to regain lost glory. 

Will #PhirEkBaarModiSarkar trend over Rahul Gandhi’s #JeetHogiSachKi? Will the BJP’s slogan “Modi hai to mumkin hai (everything is possible with Modi)” or the Congress’ negative rhetoric of “Chowkidar chor hai” bring in the votes? Will Modi ensure that ‘Acche Din’ finally arrives or will the Congress’ latest fairy, Priyanka Gandhi, sprinkle some magic dust? And, finally, what impact will the Mahagathbandan, a loose alliance of regional parties, have on the results?

Apart from the personality clashes, how will the Pulwama terrorist attack and India’s retaliation which sparked a storm of nationalistic fervour play out this season? These are all questions that will be answered by the mighty Indian electorate. 

Between April 11 and May 19, 2019 about 900 million people will be able to cast their vote at one of the one million polling stations. That is almost triple the US population eligible to vote. In the 2014 general election more than 830 million Indians were eligible. Of them, more than 550 million voted.  A voting population of this size can swing the result in any direction or many directions.

As they say, ‘a week is a long time in politics’. Just before February 14, the Congress and the other opposition parties were attacking the present government on unfulfilled promises and matters affecting the common man. The late entry of Priyanka Gandhi, the Congress’ hoped for trump card, in the electoral fray was also expected to yield positive results, shaking up the opposition parties. 

According to Radhika Ramaseshan, senior journalist and political analyst, “Before Pulwama happened, the BJP was batting on a slippery wicket. The agrarian crisis, the damage caused by ‘note bandi’ and GST to small trade, unemployment, distressed sugarcane farmers, cows destructing farm lands because the unproductive animals could not be sent to abattoirs, and a stagnant real estate were issues that overshadowed the BJP’s core Hindutva-nationalist agenda.”

However, Rasheed Kidwai, another seasoned journalist who has tracked the Congress party for decades and is the author of many books including ‘Sonia, A Biography’ feels that while conventional wisdom points at the Narendra Modi-led BJP holding pole position and being all set to emerge as the single largest party, it may not be entirely true. “In the immediate aftermath of Balakot, it appeared that the airstrike would be the game-changer, but it seems unlikely to be the singular poll issue. Agrarian distress, jobs and anti-incumbency are some key issues.”

As for the Congress party, Kidwai believes that its leaders have not been able to build alliances. In a recent column, he wrote, “The outcome of the Lok Sabha elections will have a tremendous bearing on Congress. A repeat performance of 2014 by Narendra Modi-led NDA will not only seal the fate of the Congress but put a question mark on the political survival of the otherwise illustrious Nehru-Gandhi family. No member of the Nehru-Gandhi family has been a failure… The onus is now on Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi to prove their mettle.”

Priyanka Gandhi, therefore, now has the responsibility of keeping the Congress party alive. “Priyanka Gandhi’s forays in Uttar Pradesh, her attempts to get some smaller parties on board indicate a desperate bid to find a foothold. A 100+ Lok Sabha tally will not only give breathing space but let the Congress live another day regardless of who forms the government at the Centre,” said Kidwai, who is known for his closeness to the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Meanwhile, the Mahagathbandan or Grand Alliance is now on shakier ground that when it started, almost at whimper stage with the Congress opting out in West Bengal. Without a common minimum programme, and a motley group of regional leaders such as Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Chandrababu Naidu, Akhilesh Yadav and Arvind Kejriwal, each vying to grab the limelight, it would be hard to choose a leader from these heavyweight contenders if this group were to form the government. 

So as parties slug it out on the electoral turf, poll pundits predict a win for the BJP-led NDA. An opinion poll by Times Now-VMR projected that the NDA would win as many as 283 seats, 54 seats less than what it had won in 2014. A party or a coalition would require 272 seats to form the government. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) would win 135 seats while the others could clinch 125. 

The Satta bazaar, or illegal betting market, too is bullish on the NDA. Prior to the air strike, bookies were expecting 200-230 seats for the BJP, for which they were offering 1:1 odds (Rs 1 win for every rupee bet). But now they are anticipating 245-251 seats for the party and over 300 for the NDA, more than enough to form the next government. The odds of the Congress winning 200 or more seats were 7:1 (Rs 7 win for every rupee bet) before the Pulwama attack. The odds on the same are now 10:1. 

Another interesting aspect of these elections is the amount of funds that political parties are collecting. According to data based on parties’ declaration to the election commission, compiled by the Association of Electoral Reforms, for the financial year 2018, BJP has earned Rs 10.3 billion, Congress Rs 2 billion and the other parties about Rs 700 million. A Bloomberg report quoting the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies said that this spend is set to rise 40 per cent to Rs 500 billion (US$7 billion).

“It won’t be an exaggeration to say our elections will never be the same again,” said N Bhaskara Rao, the group’s chairman, who has advised previous Indian governments. 

So, yes, the result of this election will be crucial to all the three political formations. This will determine if the BJP-led NDA has finally emerged as a dominant force and is not a mere blip that occurs every few decades, if the Congress, being the oldest political party, can continue to lead the country and if the third front can actually be a reality. As Modi said, the ‘festival of democracy is here’, so let us all participate and make the most of it. 


Modi’s charisma set to overcome the handicaps of incumbency

By  Prasenjit K Basu

Pre-campaign scenario: NDA short of majorityw

Indian general elections, like presidential elections in the US, are an agglomeration of a series of mini-elections at the state level. Each state has its own electoral eco-system, with relatively little variation in the main parties that are players in each state from election to election – although substantial swings occur from one election to another. 

A “wave” often occurs, particularly in north India, swinging the entire region behind one party that is seen as likely to win. Such waves prominently occurred in 1977 (when the Janata Party coalition won all 139 seats in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and 81 of the 85 seats in Punjab, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan), 1980 (when Congress-I regained the north in a landslide), 1984 (Congress-I again winning a sympathy vote landslide) and in 2014 (when the BJP-led NDA won almost all seats across north, west and central India). 

Going into this year’s general election, all the polls suggest that the BJP is set to see a substantial reduction in its seat count. If the election were held today, my calculation is that the BJP would win 213 seats (down from 282 in 2014), and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that it leads will win 265 – falling seven seats short of a majority. 

This baseline outcome will still enable the NDA to form a government with the aid of anti-Congress parties that have provided it parliamentary support in the past five years – Biju Janata Dal, YSR Congress, and Telangana Rashtra Samiti (together likely to win 35 seats, enough to take the NDA to 300 seats – 28 clear of the halfway mark). However, this would be a less stable and decisive coalition than the BJP-led government of the past five years, with the allies having substantially greater say on policy questions. 

Although the BJP won a decisive Lok Sabha majority in 2014, the NDA was heavily outnumbered in the Rajya Sabha, which was thus able to block key legislation. The NDA now has 108 of the 233 elective seats in the Rajya Sabha, while “outside allies” (BJD, TRS, YSRCP) have 17. Together, they have a working majority in the Rajya Sabha – which will increase over the next two years, as the BJP dominates states that are to elect new members.

How the election campaign is likely to transform the outcome

The arithmetic of electoral alliances in the states plays a big part in laying the boundaries within which the contest can occur. But ultimately, the quality of parties’ election campaign plays a decisive role in determining India’s electoral outcomes. 

The Modi government has made India the fastest-growing economy in the world, and done so while cleaning India’s cities, villages and rivers (via the “Swachh Bharat” programme).   In 2014, just 28.5% of rural households had LPG (or clean cooking-gas) connections, 89% have them now. Just 35% of rural households had a bank account in 2014, over 99% have them now. Less than half of households had access to a basic bank account, more than 98% have them now. 

These achievements are truly transformative, because those bank accounts are now connected to the universal ID (Aadhar cards), which enable benefits to be transferred directly to the poor without intermediaries (politicians) skimming off the large percentages they did in the past.  

Additionally, PM Modi’s muscular approach to national security has virtually eliminated terrorist attacks outside Kashmir. And on Kashmir, Modi’s retaliation to Uri (surgical strikes by Indian commandos on terrorist training camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) and Pulwama (air strikes on a terrorist haven inside Pakistan proper) isolated Pakistan internationally, and gained domestic goodwill. 

Unlike governments of the past, which had allowed Pakistan to bleed India through a thousand cuts, and China to steadily advance into Indian territory, the Modi government stood firm at Doklam – and forced China’s military to stand down (the first time China had done so since Vietnam gave it a bloody nose 40 years ago). 

Once PM Modi communicates these transformative policy changes to the electorate, there will be a substantial swing to the BJP, enabling it to gain another 50-60 seats across Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Odisha and Rajasthan. This should catapult the NDA to 315-325 seats. This very substantial majority, coupled with a Rajya Sabha majority (with the “outside allies”) will pave the path to five years of substantial legislation, and 10% annual economic growth. Jai Hind! 

Prasenjit K Basu is an economist, and author of “Asia Reborn: A continent rises from colonialism and war to a new colonialism”.


Mixed verdict likely, reflecting India’s diversity

By  Rajen Makhijani

I believe that no party per se will win the elections. There will be a mixed verdict. Which actually may not be a bad thing. India is essentially a confederation of diverse regions. The recent push to paint it all with one colour, with little tolerance for diversity, is an artificial imposition. India’s diversity will have its voice heard. What’s more, it seems coalition governments have actually been better at pushing big-ticket reforms. 

Reports suggest that the biggest economic reforms in India, the ones from 1991 onwards, occurred under minority governments that threatened to collapse any time. The so-called ‘dream budget’ of 1998 was presented by a coalition government that was perhaps the smallest in India’s history (being supported by the Congress from the outside). And so it is not easy to figure out, given this history, why the markets think coalitions are a bad thing for India.

When real national interest is being debated, it does not seem to be difficult to bring all parties on board even when there is an absence of a clear majority. I would argue that there are times when a clear majority may not be such a good thing. In a nation like India, which is very diverse, it is often better, and wiser, to take the cautious, middle path rather than make some bold move that might turn out to be a gamble.

This election is a fight to preserve the idea of India. I mean this in two specific ways: (a) social fabric and (b) institutional independence.

Let me explain. In the 1950s, the world believed India would disintegrate within a few years either because of its diversity or because a tinpot dictator would destroy democracy. It was believed the one-adult, one-vote system could work only in a western democracy where literacy and education levels were high, where voters were discerning enough to stop any attack on institutional independence that was the backbone of democracy. But we surprised the world. 

The last five years have been a brazen attack on both fundamental fronts. All arms of the government, judiciary and media have gone through unprecedented turmoil, attack and compromise. This is not Atal Bihari Vajapayee’s BJP. The less said about the social fabric, the better. More fundamental damage has been done than the anti- India elements in Pakistan managed to do in 70 years. So this election is like the post-Emergency election.

The best-case scenario for the BJP is a minority government with an expanded, post-poll alliance, with Nitin Gadkari as the Prime Minister.

The question is, will the India-Pakistan confrontation impact the voting patterns significantly? 

Yes and no. Six to nine weeks in politics is a long time. People will return to their senses. Imran Khan has defused the situation by returning Wing Commander Abhinandan. Modi-Shah will desperately try to keep the hatred simmering. But that will only show their desperation. 

I don’t think the unemployed or the distressed farmers are going to be swayed. Their condition is a lived reality, every day of their lives. The urban upper middle class, who have figured out a way to live prosperously despite the government, can indulge themselves in imagined patriotism on the back of soldiers’ bodies, sitting in their drawing rooms. 

The distress is most acutely felt in the Hindi belt. And the south and east never were the BJP’s bastion. 

Rajen Makhijani – IIM MBA, Award-nominated Bollywood Screenwriter, Ex McKinsey/Ex Country Director of University of Chicago, Guest columnist/author,CEO Coach, Passive NRI turned into politically engaged, governance player having worked with several governments in India and abroad.


NDA likely winner because it has delivered results

By  Shiv Kumar Iyer

I believe that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is most likely to win, purely because of the fact that they have demonstrated their intent with actual performance. There are promises which are yet to be delivered, but a significant differentiator is that this government led by Narendra Modi is firmly committed to all-round national development.

What will make this election different is that this is the first time we are seeing a united opposition of all parties regardless of their size, stature, region or fundamental ideologies. This clearly means that all the thugs who were at loggerheads with each other are now beginning to realise that they cannot “prosper” as long as the Modi-led NDA government is in power. This unholy alliance of the opposition and their nefarious agenda to hoodwink the public first, and then make their convenient equations post-election, needs to be exposed. The “Mahagathbandhan” or Maha’thug’bandhan is going to make this election very interesting because it will also prove how mature our electorate really is! Can they not see this conniving opposition and the motive behind this grand alliance? The wolves in sheep’s clothing must be exposed!

I believe that the current situation between India and Pakistan will impact the voting pattern significantly. People have always wondered why former Indian governments did not take decisive actions against the enemies and terrorists. This government of Modi is clear that the policy has to be “Don’t hit first, but don’t be submissive if any enemy harms you. Make sure you hit back and hit hard”. This decisive strategy, allowing the defence forces a free hand to counter terror strikes, is the need of the hour. 

Shiv Iyer has been living in Singapore for over 19 years, and is the Regional Director at a US-based ERP software principal which specializes in the manufacturing & automotive industry. He is actively involved in local Hindu/Indian organisations in Singapore such as the Chinmaya Mission and has worked closely with the team that organised PM Shri Narendra Modi’s first visit to Singapore in 2014.


Coalition government likely with reduced BJP majority

By  Sumita Ambasta 

There are chances of the BJP emerging with a reduced majority in the general election and forming a coalition government. Congress, and the regional parties, will see some gains. However, trends can shift quickly, and hidden factors may influence the way people vote eventually, so predictions can easily be erroneous. 

It will be interesting to see the response of the electorate to the policies and approaches of the current government. The last election was a clear vote for change. This election will be a referendum on the current government, and hence a more difficult election. There is evidence of growing polarities in discourse and increasing strife. The polls will show how people actually experience these issues beyond the echo chambers or urban conclaves. People have responded strongly to demonetisation, GST, foreign policy re Pakistan, and all these will be reflected in how they vote for the incumbents. 

There will be a greater push for nationalism. It will feature prominently in all the parties’ campaigns,  and diversity of opinion will be a casualty. A younger nation is a lot more assertive in its national identity, and that demographic and affective shift will be reflected in the way people vote. The anthem is “Apna time aayega,” (Gully Boy). Many younger Indians feel it’s time for them to assert who they are. Since both traditional and social media amplify emotions, these messages will influence the elections. This might work in the current government’s favour. 

The government needs to work on development that is equitable through policies that reach out to all constituents, which are regionally relevant, and address the class issues of inequity that can seriously affect social cohesion in the country. This is the path to political as well as social stability. Without this tempered approach, we will enter into an era of conflict. An environment for development, offering hope, can only be created by strengthening institutions, and while that has not been the focus, it needs to be prioritised. 

Sumita Ambasta runs an International Foundation focusing on education and development in Asia.  After working in the corporate sector for many years, she moved to the world of Philanthropy and Education, working both at grassroots levels as well as in leadership positions.  She serves  on several not for profit and Education boards, and is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Education at Columbia University, New York. She lives in Singapore and New York.


Nithya Subramanian

Nithya Subramanian has worked with India Se since its launch in 2007. She currently manages the editorial content of the publication as well as the digital media platforms. Her responsibilities include planning, assigning and overseeing production of the content that goes into the different media platforms. Nithya has over 18 years of experience in print journalism having worked in several leading publications such as the Hindu Business Line, The Telegraph and A&M magazine. She has covered a wide range of sectors such as banking & finance, health, media & advertising, which enables her to bring in a lot of value in the editorials of India Se. She has been living in Singapore for the last 12 years and has two children Sriya (11) and Kritin (8).