By all indications, it will be a contentious, sharp and bitter fight. Contrary to appearances, the Hindu-nationalist, right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is not about to sweep the polls or win a clear parliamentary majority on its own.
The ruling multi-party National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which the BJP dominates, might be hard put to repeat its performance in the last elections in 1999.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has himself warned his party that the electoral battle will be fierce. There are several reasons for this, and at least four are important.
First, the NDA is a shrinking entity, unlike five years ago. In the past 15 months, six of its original 22 constituents have quit the alliance, including regional parties from southern Tamil Nadu state, and smaller organizations representing groups like Dalits (untouchables) from eastern Bihar state, or farmers in the western part of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.
The biggest blow to the BJP was the breakdown of its alliance in Uttar Pradesh with the strongly Dalit Bahujan Samaj Party and that party’s decision to oppose the BJP tooth and nail in the coming elections.
Second, the anti-NDA opposition is making serious efforts to form alliances so as not to divide its vote. (Traditionally, ruling parties in India tend to gain disproportionately from high levels of opposition disunity, rather from their own popularity.)
Crucial to these efforts is the Indian National Congress’ decision not to go it alone and to explore the broadest possible coalition with other parties. The Congress party, which has ruled India for more than 45 years of the 56 years of independence, until recently used to consider itself the natural party of governance and was loathe to form coalitions.
Recent defeats in three important state assembly elections have jolted the Congress out of its arrogance and complacency.
It is now negotiating alliances with other parties from Kashmir in the north to Tamil Nadu in the deep south, and from Maharashtra in the west to the seven small northeastern states. A third reason why the coming elections will be closely fought is that in India, the party or parties in power tend to suffer the disadvantage of incumbency.
In the past 30 years, a ruling coalition has been returned to power at the national level only once in two consecutive elections. The Indian voter prefers to punish parties rather than reward them.
The BJP/NDA rode on the anti-incumbency wave in 1998, when the ruling center-Left coalition collapsed. Today, the NDA faces the incumbent’s disadvantage.
Finally, the BJP has sharply polarized Indian society and politics as never before. There are two main lines of division: one along the issue of religion and politics, which the BJP mixes dangerously; and the other, on economic policies with sharp class biases.
The BJP is an ideologically driven party that stands for Hindu supremacism and a Hindu state, which will privilege this 80 percent majority. The party is closely tied to extremist and violent organizations notorious for attacks on and persecution of religious minorities, besides vandalism and rabid intolerance.
Eleven years ago, the BJP and its associates razed to the ground a 16th-century mosque in Uttar Pradesh, which they regarded as a symbol of the Muslim conquest of Hindu India in the Middle Ages. (Historians have a very different, multicultural, multi-religious, view of India’s past).
Less than two years ago, the Hindu-nationalists butchered over 2,000 Muslims in the state of Gujarat in retaliation for the burning alive of 60 Hindu-nationalist cadres in a railway train -for which the victimized Muslims were in no way responsible.
India’s religious minorities, some 180 million people or bigger than Brazil’s population have never felt more insecure than under the BJP’s rule.
The opposition sees the BJP as a major menace to India’s secular Constitution and pluralist democracy. The BJP has also promoted brazenly elitist neoliberal economic policies, which have destroyed public services and undermined food security, while further enriching the already rich.
In the last three years of NDA rule, India’s GDP growth slowed down. But much worse was the rise in unemployment, especially in the rural areas where 70 percent of India’s population lives.
The economy only absorbs about a third of the new entrants into the job market. But the incomes of the top tenth of the population have substantially increased creating what the government crudely terms the "feel good" or "India Shining" factor publicized in expensive television and print advertisements.
India has never experienced such sharp income polarities or such gaping regional disparities. All these factors make for a robust fight in the next elections.
To win an absolute majority on its own, the BJP would have to win 50 percent more seats than it currently holds. There is no way it can do this short of a wave in its favor and its allies’ agreement to concede constituencies to it.
The BJP has a limited base, mainly in central and western India. As for the NDA, it reached a saturation point in a number of states where it holds a good amount or majority of seats. It will not be easy to better this performance.
The opposition, by contrast, has a much higher chance of improving on its 1999 scores. However, the opposition cannot win the electoral race unless it can project an alternative set of policies and visions which are of relevance to, and catch the imagination of, a majority of the population.
It has yet to work out a common minimum program or manifesto. Nor has the opposition been able to form a single common front.
At the moment, two different anti-NDA fronts are emerging: one led by the Congress, the other by the communist parties. Some significant regional players like the Samajwadi Party, which leads a coalition government in Uttar Pradesh, have so far kept out of both.
Some of India’s political parties are also allergic to Sonia Gandhi’s candidature for the leadership of any alliance, simply because of her Italian origins. The BJP has always made a xenophobic fuss about this issue, but some secular-minded parties too believe that a leader with foreign origins will not be acceptable to the Indian public.
At any rate, Sonia Gandhi has told all potential allies that she is not a candidate for the top job even if a Congress-led coalition wins. This has certainly helped the alliance-building process. But the critical issue is that of polices and programs which unambiguously oppose the NDA. Without them, the secular opposition could still lose.