By James Chiriyankandath, Co-Editor, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics

In April and May, India, home to more than half the population of the Commonwealth and the world’s largest democracy, holds its 16th general election. We follow an election that could  prove to be one of the most significant in the country’s history with the Indian National Congress, the party that has headed India’s government for much of the 67 years since independence, facing defeat and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) bidding to regain power after a decade.

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Over the course of nine days of polling between 7 April and 12 May an electorate of approximately 814.5 million (an increase of over 100 million on the 2009 general election) will vote at some 930,000 polling stations across the 543 constituencies of the Lok Sabha (House of the People), the lower house of Parliament. It will be India’s most drawn out national election for half a century, as well as its most expensive ever – the Centre for Media Studies in New Delhi estimates that 300 billion rupees (US$5 billion) will be spent, second only to the US$7 billion spent in the last US presidential election. Elections will also be held for the state assemblies in three of the country’s 28 states – Andhra Pradesh (soon to be controversially bifurcated into two new states, Telangana and Seemandhra), Odisha (formerly Orissa) and Sikkim. While there will be no voting for state legislatures in the other 25, over the past three or four decades national elections have increasingly become a series of regional contests rolled into an all-India battle for power with regional parties leading governments in ten states, almost as many as Congress and twice as many as the BJP. The difference in 2014 is that for the first time since Indira Gandhi dominated the political landscape until her assassination in 1984, at the centre of this election is a personality, that of Narendra Modi, the BJP’s candidate to be prime minister.

Modi, the 63-year-old chief minister of the state of Gujarat since 2001, is the most bitterly divisive figure to appear on the Indian political stage since Indira. A Hindu nationalist since his teens, his combative politics and sarcastic rhetoric tap into a visceral Hindu nationalism that enthuses the rank and file of the BJP and the broader Hindu nationalist organisational family of its parent body, the thrice-banned Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. On the other hand, he evokes the bitter hostility of opponents and widespread apprehension arising from his authoritarian style and the lingering controversy surrounding the killing in riots in Gujarat in 2002 of over a thousand people, mainly Muslims, and the displacement of tens of thousands more. While his robust anti-trade union and business friendly policies have succeeded in winning over many of India’s corporate barons, among whom Gujaratis and Marwaris from western India are well represented, there are doubts about his capacity to adapt to being a leader on the national and international stage. He appears ill-prepared with only a high school education, a political experience largely limited to Gujarat and scant exposure to the world outside India.

For years Modi’s path to national leadership was stymied by warnings from leading figures in the BJP and some of its allied parties in the opposition National Democratic Alliance that his elevation would alienate potential partners in forming a coalition government following an election. Eventually outmanoeuvring his critics to gain acceptance as the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee in September 2013, a well organised and funded tech-savvy media operation has skilfully projected an image of Modi as a strong, dynamic, assertive and incorruptible leader from humble origins. This image is starkly contrasted to that of the tired, weak and indecisive decade-old governing Congress-led United Progressive Alliance of retiring Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, undermined by an economy in the doldrums after years of growth and reeling from the impact of a succession of highly damaging corruption scandals. The mass anti-corruption movement arising from the backlash has also presented the established parties with a political challenge in the shape of the new Aam Aadmi (Common Man’s) Party that sensationally briefly formed the government in the National Capital Territory of Delhi following elections.

The Modi campaign, on the road across India for months before the announcement of the polling dates, has been aided by an irresolute Congress leadership with 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi, the fourth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family to take the helm of the Congress Party, as yet unable to marshal an effective response. The latest opinion polls indicate that the BJP might achieve its best ever result with around 200 seats or more while Congress could lose well over half the 206 it won in 2009, perhaps even slipping to double figures in what would be its worse ever performance. Under these circumstances the chances of the BJP under Modi finding enough minor party partners to carry them over the 272-seat threshold to power look much better than they did six months ago. However, if Modi falls short there is no shortage of aspirants for the prime ministership, especially a handful of other ambitious chief ministers leading regional parties, among them two formidable, if mercurial, women, Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu and Mamta Banerjee in West Bengal.