While Mercury across the length and breadth of the country is soaring up, the histrionics of the political parties and their key leaders is also showing a rising graph. It’s a season of pledges, speeches and rhetoric which electorate of this great land experiences every five years. Perhaps this is the only time when the common man has opportunity and due recognition to adjudge the candidates in the election fray, if they are actually well intentioned and speaking truth or simply playing to the gallery.
So canvassing and voting for the 16th Lok Sabha for the biggest democracy in the world is at full swing during this summer in India. By the time I am writing these lines, franchise for more than fifty percent parliamentary constituencies has already been locked in the ballot boxes aka electronic voting machines. Politics these days has become synonymous to a dirty game in the muddy water and the limitation of the democratic process is that you can choose only from amongst the choices available. Yet the choice made at the ballot box is crucial as it determines what kind of governance you are opting for the next five years.
This reminds me of my childhood days when elections for the national and state assemblies were completed in only two-three days across the country. But then those days, elections were usually peaceful affairs with not much of money, muscle power, mud-slinging and vendetta involved. The political parties and leaders were contesting more on their agenda, programmes, policies and ideologies rather than focusing on personal abuse and mud-slinging with a holier than thou approach.
Over the period, particularly during the last two decades, the election campaigning have become very complex and costly affair with ambitious people joining politics - many of them with criminal and corrupt background. Politics has become more of a profession for catapulting to a position of power and wealth rather than public welfare and service. Situation is further aggravated due to keenness of parties and individuals to stay in the fray by hook or crook, induction of muscle power and black money and frequent use of electronic and print media to further selfish interests. These factors collectively put a tough task and onerous responsibility on the Election Commission to conduct elections in a free and fair manner. Consequently, the Election Commission has to deploy vast government manpower, machinery and material resources over a fairly long period to achieve the said objective across the vast stretch of the country.
Personal ambition and greed of politicians in the backdrop of complex regional and local problems have also led to the emergence of a large number of regional and individual parties over a period of time. Eyeing to bargain for key slots in governance to achieve selfish interests, political parties and leaders are willing to go to any extent to defame and defile their political opponents even by snooping in their personal life. In such an environment, making up mind for the correct choice itself is a big challenge particularly for the electorate who wish to cast their franchise based on merit of the party and candidate rather than driven by the personal considerations.
In the above backdrop, it appears worth analyzing merits and demerits of major political parties and their key leader or prime ministerial candidate for the 16th Lok Sabha.
First and foremost, let us consider the political party and its leaders which have ruled the country ever since independence from the British for decades barring few intervening spells of other parties governments. After the independence in 1947, the Indian National Congress remained country’s dominant political party. In the past 15 general elections, the Congress has won an outright majority on six occasions and has led the ruling coalition on four times including its present stint, wherein it had emerged as single largest party with over 200 winning candidates and was able to form the government with a coalition of political parties under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2009.
The Indian National congress has undergone many changes and metamorphosis ever since it took reigns of the country under the prime ministership of Jawahar Lal Nehru immediately after the independence. Considering the diversity and plurality of the nation in terms of caste, creed, region and religion etc. in socio-political context, and prosperity and poverty in economic sense, the party had initially professed a mixed economy and a secular state. For a long time, the economic policy of the party was focused on the public sector cautiously opening certain sectors for privatization with the goal of establishing a socialistic society. However, after the adoption of liberal economic policies in early 1990s, the orientation of the economic policy of the Congress somewhat changed towards free market policies with a thrust to larger private sector participation.
Over the years, the party has stuck to the middle path with secular credentials and inclusive growth but the biggest disadvantage it gave to the nation is the widespread nepotism and dynastic rule despite abolition of the system of kings, nawabs and jamindars way back. Ever since independence, the control of party and the governance of country, formally or informally, always remained in the hands of Nehru and Gandhi clan. There have been transitory phases when suitable successor was not available or not ready to take reins, in such eventualities a rather weak leadership was opted for the party and nation which could easily be replaced at a convenient time. For illustration, after the death of Rajeev Gandhi, a gentleman called Sitaram Keshary was made the Congress President. Later when he tried to assert his position, he was humiliated and virtually thrown out to pave way for the present incumbent Congress President in 1998. On the other hand, upright, honest and competent leaders like Vishwanath Pratap Singh were showns doors by the party. Such has been the dominance and clout of the family and their loyalists that the party has not been able to acknowledge or promote any strong and visionary leader outside the family.
The moot question arises whether a party which carries a legacy of more than hundred years, should select or elect its leader on known merit and ability from among the talented leaders available to carry forward the nation on progress path or the successor should necessary be from a particular family or its staunch loyalists. Because of these inherent defects and consequent ill-governance, the party today faces a crisis and threat to its very survival. It is well-known that during the last ten years in two successive parliamentary spells, there have been clearly two power centres. While the power of governance officially remained with a leader with hardly any political base, the real power rested with the party president. Besides, the period has been rocked with numerous high value scams such as Commonwealth Games, 2G, Coalgate, murky Defence deals and lackluster performance of the government on several fronts. As such, the image and popularity of the party is perhaps at its lowest ebb and election forecasts indicate worst ever performance at polls.
Though his name has not been officially endorsed as the prime ministerial candidate, but Rahul Gandhi is the current face and unofficial nominee in the event the party again comes to power. On face, he appears to be a well groomed, well-meaning young leader and as such his candidature does not carry any stigma of corruption or ill-governance. Notwithstanding above, so far his administrative skills are untested and he doesn’t carry experience of running any ministry or even department. His organizational abilities are unknown, he doesn’t carry any personal achievement to his credit yet he is largely known and popular because of the political family he belongs to and constant media coverage. Hence masses appear to be still skeptical about his competence and ability to lead and steer India on the path of the development and progress among the League of Nations in the 21st century.
The other major national party is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is the second most important party after the Congress in the Indian politics. As of now, it is also second largest political party in terms of representation in the Parliament and the state assemblies. Its origin could be traced back in 1951 when Shyama Prasad Mookerjee constituted the Bhartiya Jana Sangh. During the 1977 general elections, the Jana Sangh was merged with many other parties to form the ‘Janta Party’as a backlash of emergency excesses to defeat Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister. The experiment was, however, short-lived and in 1980 the erstwhile Jana Sangh was rechristened as the Bharatiya Janata Party. It grew in strength following the Ram Janmabhumi movement but with a tag of communalism. Consequent to better performance in national elections, it formed government in 1996 which lasted only for 13 days.
Then from 1998 to 2004, a BJP led coalition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) headed by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Bajpayee was the first non-Congress government which lasted a full five years term in office. Since then, it has been working as the main opposition party in the parliament.Traditionally, it has been labelled as right-wing party advocating Hindu nationalism, social conservatism, self-reliance by Swadeshi Movement and a foreign policy centred on nationalist principles. It is known for its strong views on certain issues of national importance including the abrogation of the special constitutional status to Jammu and Kashmir (Article 370), building a Ram temple in Ayodhya and the implementation of a uniform civil code for all Indians. However, the coalition NDA government had not pressed any of the controversial issues during its tenure at the Centre and largely implemented a liberal economic policy.
The BJP is also known to derive its strength and motivation from the highly motivated non-political organization namely Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and some critics even regard it as the political wing of RSS. Despite serious ideological differences, the BJP too has largely adopted the middle path like the Congress governments. Despite being branded as communal by opponents, the party has been away from monolithic approach and dynastic trends, and key national leaders are generally disciplined with clean image. The party despite initial hiccups was able to declare its prime ministerial candidate well in advance and has gone to elections seeking public mandate unitedly flocked behind its official nominee.
Narendra Modi, the official prime ministerial candidate of the BJP, is a hardcore nationalist, able administrator, excellent political organizer with immense popularity among masses. As chief minister of Gujarat for the third successive term, he is known for his strong opinions, good governance and development and growth orientation. Despite repeatedly denial by the rival parties, a sort of mass opinion or wave in his favor appears to exist during these elections. His pro-growth approach and pledge to adhere to the Constitution has enhanced his image and credibility despite skeptimism of many rivals, analysts and intelligentia. However, the flip side which may go against him includes stigma attached to him for being communal which his critics highlight time and again and the fact that he does not enjoy trust and faith of Muslim community despite the special investigation team (SIT) constituted under the Supreme Court order cleared him of any charge or bias against the minority community during the Gujarat Communal Riots in 2002.
Then there is another rather new outfit at the national level. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) launched by its founder and convener Arvind Kejriwal on 26 November 2012 is largely a product of India Against Corruption Movement led by Anna Hajare demanding a Jan Lokpal Bill since 2011. Later on ideological differences with his mentor Anna, Arvind Kejriwal parted ways to form new political party along with other like-minded people from the movement. During Delhi legislative assembly election in 2013, the AAP received an overwhelming support winning second highest i.e. 28 of the 70 assembly seats. With BJP unwilling to form government due to lack of majority, the AAP formed a minority government with outside support from the Congress. The party, however, could not consolidate on people’s popular mandate with its plethora of commitments and ran away from responsibility after a short stint of 49 days.
The AAP has now jumped into fray in a haste in the national elections and perhaps it would be a record of sorts that a new party has fielded more than 400 candidates in the maiden attempt. The party maintains it has entered politics not to win but to change it. However, in the absence of an organizational structure, committed cadre and adequate resources, their fight appears to have become more symbolic against certain politicians rather than parties in certain pockets only as is also apparent from their recent focus on Varanasi and Amethi. A party which boasts of high ethics and morality, has clearly fielded more candidates than it can vet or vouch which has led to joining of all kinds of people. For illustration, as per the analysis by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) and MP Election Watch (PMEW) of the candidates for the second phase of Lok Sabha polls in Madhya Pradesh alone, 30% of the AAP candidates are billionaires and 40% have criminal records against them. Other parties too have such candidates but it is so remarkable and paradoxical in this case because the AAP stands to fight against corruption and crime.
It remains for anybody to guess if the party is a third force challenging the Congress and BJP or another front fighting all political parties. Interestingly, the leader of the party himself proclaims to be an anarchist calling every rival politician as dishonest and corrupt, making slanderous charges without rendering proof, posing as a street fighter and justifies dharna and other coercive measures like spy cams, sting operation. Notwithstanding above negativities, he offers certain remarkable reforms like redefining democracy by making it more participative, ending VIP culture and utmost altruism in political life. Many people see a crusader in him fighting the system which doesn’t respond to the conventional means. In a nutshell, the alternative of the AAP appears noble but it clearly lacks the requisite nobility, dignity and grace.
Besides, there is a plethora of parties in the form of the left-wing Communists, Socialists and Regional parties generally localized to a state or region. The leaders of these parties usually seek support from people based on local issues, cast dynamics and regional sentiments of the electorate. Some of them also try to encash on minority votes or a combination of minority with backward or minority with scheduled castes or other emotive factors. They often talk of a Third Front offering alternative of the Congress led UPA and the BJP led NDA. Initially, there was an effort to forge a pre-poll alliance but due to conflicting interests, ideology and agenda, this didn’t materialize and was postponed after poll scenario. Some of the prominent leaders, however, maintain a rhetoric that both the Congress and BJP have lost the confidence of nation, hence the Third Front stands a fair chance to form government at the Centre after the General Election.
Among the many ambitious regional Satraps, leaders of the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and All India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazhagam in Tamilnadu appear to be front runners for the premier post. Their calculations and hope lie on the premise that in the event of the Congress losing election and BJP failing to attain a majority, the former is likely to support the Third Front to form the Government in a bid to keep the latter away from power. In such an eventuality, the leader of the party with highest number of winning candidates would stand a better bargaining chance for the coveted prime ministerial job. Recent outbursts and severe criticism of the BJP prime ministerial candidate by the leaders of these parties may be seen in the above backdrop.
Left-wing parties viz. CPM and CPI have increasingly lost their ground and relevance over the recent years. Their position appears precarious and insecure even in their erstwhile citadels like West Bengal and Kerala.
In the event of the Congress losing the election and BJP failing to obtain absolute majority in collaboration with alliance partners, the Congress is likely to make every effort to stall the NDA government at the Centre. It is due to the perception that an unstable government at the Centre would eventually be in their interest. The past experience indicates that a loosely built coalition government with small national and regional parties do not last long due to their conflicting interests usually leading to a mid-term poll. The party has already started giving feelers to this approach as is evident from the statement of a key advisor to the Congress Party President. As per the published report in a national daily, he stated that the Congress might consider dropping its claim to lead the next ‘secular’ coalition government and lend support to a non-BJP front in order to deny Narendra Modi the prime ministership – a formal indication of the ‘come-what-may’ strategy to prevent a BJP led government at the Centre.
In the meantime, the dirty political war with abusive terms and mud-slinging from all sides continue. Evidently, the parliamentary general elections for the 16th Lok Sabha are breaking all records of personal vendetta and personality bashing by all and sundry. Parties' agenda, programmes, policies and ideologies have taken a back seat and terms like mass murderer, poison farming, poisonous person, liar and fraud, maut ka saudager, biggest gunda, Butcher of Gujarat, jallad, impotent, shahjada, dog, puppy, panick-stricken rats etc. are being freely used to describe rival candidate(s). The intent behind land transfers/deals by politicians or their family members are being questioned, links with persons of criminal background and doubtful integrity discovered and corruption charges are freely exchanged with no effort to substantiate it making the task of the Election Commission increasingly difficult. Even the Defence Services have not been spared in an over zeal to flare up religious and caste sentiments to work in favour.
So the largest carnival and expo of the democratic India is on with rising temperature and the stakeholders are out to display their products and potential – finished or under development - with the latest technology. For the moment, the electorate (i.e. common man), getting royal treatment, too is enjoying the fun and role of the kingmaker. But from the above description, it is also apparent that the present day politicians are bent upon making politics decisively a cesspool leaving no ideal choice left for a well-meaning person. All that one could do, is to exercise his (or her) mandate to elect a lesser evil within the choice available.