The adage that no Indian election is fought solely on economic issues has hit home with a vengeance across political parties as the countdown begins for the 2019 General Election in India scheduled for April-May.
In the aftermath of the 14 February terrorist attack on para-military forces in Pulwama, India-administered Kashmir, which was claimed by the Jaish-e-Mohammad and New Delhi’s unleashing of airstrikes against the terror outfit’s largest training camp deep inside Pakistani territory in response, electoral strategies are hurriedly being redrawn.
What seemed to have been shaping as a poll campaign around bread-and-butter issues has now been infused with a strong dose of national security.
Terrorism emanating from Pakistan, relations between India’s Hindu/Indic majority and its minority communities, and varying narratives around Indian nationalism have become a prominent aspect of the political narrative.
At issue is who will govern the world’s fastest-growing major economy and rising military power which also has one of the largest populations of the desperately poor surviving on less than $2 a day for the next five years.
The frontrunner, even before the terrorist attack and the Indian response to it, was the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Post-Pulwama, though there have been no tracking polls published till now, Modi’s position is thought to have strengthened further.
The BJP has already recalibrated its campaign to champion, as a senior party leader told Asia News Network, “the Prime Minister’s bold, decisive, take-no-prisoners attitude” when it comes to acting against Pakistan-based terrorists.
National security, the long-delayed procurement of Rafale fighter jets pushed through by Modi (which the Opposition has alleged stinks of a scam) and building India’s military prowess to match its economic heft are key themes.
Most analysts including those opposed to the BJP concede that Modi is likely to gain from the stand-off with Pakistan as the party will run a presidential, personality-centric campaign on various platforms including social media.
The Opposition for its part says that a powerful, nationalistic leader who leads a country through a time of conflict is not always rewarded electorally.
“Winston Churchill lost the British election post-World War II and more recently in these parts Mahinda Rajapakse lost despite wiping out the LTTE in Sri Lanka,” a Congress Party leader told ANN.
The Congress is unwilling to let Modi have a free run and its social media campaign is aimed at chipping away at the Prime Minister’s strongman image.
Led by Rahul Gandhi, the latest scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, and showing signs of revival with a big win in three state polls in December 2018, the Congress has termed the Modi Administration’s approach towards Pakistan as incoherent.
It has also alleged that Modi has at best an inconsistent and at worst a non-existent Kashmir policy.
But given the highly surcharged atmosphere in India with mass anger at what is seen as Islamabad’s proxy war aimed at bleeding the country using Islamist terror groups, the cross-border operations conducted by the Armed Forces have been backed by the Congress.
This tactic is, at least in part, aimed at preventing the BJP from painting the principal opposition party into an “anti-national, soft-on-terror” corner.
No such calibration of response, though, has been forthcoming from players in the non-Congress opposition which is a loose grouping of powerful, populist regional parties known collectively as the Third Front.
Some of its leading lights are openly questioning the efficacy of the air-strikes on Pakistan-based terror camps and have ramped up the pressure on the Modi Administration and the Indian Air Force to provide “proof” of the number of suspected terrorists killed in the cross-border strikes.
Chief Minister of the state of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee, a key Third Front leader with a large minority (Muslim) population support base, has even accused Modi of war-mongering with an eye on the elections.
But the fact remains Modi is widely perceived to have consolidated his lead over his rivals by his aggressive response to Pakistan-based terror. This is also evident from attempts being made by the Congress and Third Front post-Pulwama to stitch up an anti-BJP electoral alliance to stop Modi at any cost.
Both the government and the opposition, however, recognise that unless there is a massive escalation of the India-Pakistan conflict the Indian voter is unlikely to be significantly swayed from core governance issues.
By 2020, India will not only be the youngest nation in the world with an average/median age of 29 but also home to an aspirational, better educated and increasingly assertive population.
Nearly half or over 400 million of India’s nearly 850 million eligible voters are in the 18-28 age group. Of these, 18 million people between the age of 18 and 23 will vote for the first time in the 2019 poll, according to Election Commission of India data.
The opposition has launched a concerted campaign targeting the Modi administration’s “twin failure” – to generate jobs and address the issue of rural distress/basic needs of the poor. A leaked report from India’s national statistics office last month pegged the unemployment rate for 2018-19 at 6.1% which is the highest in 45 years, giving their claims some resonance.
Modi’s personal identification with the demonetisation of high-value currency in 2016 as an anti-graft/terror funding measure and its adverse impact on the informal economy including on small traders and shopkeepers, once the bulwark of support for the BJP, has also been latched upon by his opponents.
Problems in the implementation of the long-awaited uniform tax regime for the country or the Goods and Service Tax (GST) are another talking point for an opposition in election-mode.
Team Modi, realising the potential for damage to its chances of re-election if this campaign gains traction, has hit back hard.
India’s Finance Minister publicly mocked the “absurdity” of claims that no jobs are being generated when the economy was growing at over 7% and dismissed the leaked jobs report as a “just an unverified draft”.
The government also showcased for voters its Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) regime aimed at providing income-support to India’s farmers.
A slew of welfare measures targeting the poor ranging from providing them housing, cooking gas and toilets to bringing them into the formal banking system by making it easy for them to open bank accounts have been headlined.
Modi went a step further to assuage the misgivings of the salaried middle-class and small businesses by ensuring tax sops for them in this year’s Budget.
Rahul Gandhi, meanwhile, surprised the government with his announcement last month that the Congress Party if voted to power would implement a nationwide basic income scheme for India’s poor. The Third Front too has supported the idea.
The Modi administration has since constructed an argument which claims that its targeted DBT welfare/income-support schemes for different segments of the population below the poverty line are a better way of alleviating distress.
But large voting blocs often pull in different directions.
A mainly urban/semi-urban, millennial and aspirational electorate comprising the country’s emerging middle-class of between 400 million and 600 million people (depending on how you slice the data) is concerned and vocal about issues relating to governance, individual rights, graft and delivery of services.
The approximately 270 million people or 20% of Indians living in extreme poverty who comprise the country’s vast underclass both rural and urban, though, are demanding a more statist, welfarist approach from government. They seek a fairer distribution of wealth and want state intervention to pull them out of a cycle of inter-generational poverty.
This segment of the population has traditionally been the most active participant in the Indian election process as they see it as a once-in-five-years opportunity to better their lives.
Simultaneously, young people across class, community, caste and regional divides are getting highly restive as the job-for-life expectations of an earlier generation are now well and truly buried.
According to India’s Labour Ministry, over one million citizens enter the job market each month.
The criticism of the Modi government has been that despite high-sounding policy pronouncements, it has failed to adequately address the issue of skills upgrades for the young so they can land jobs in new sectors of the economy.
As employment opportunities have shifted from the public to the private sector, the data on the number of new jobs being created has itself become highly contentious and a major issue for the forthcoming poll.
This narrative of “jobless growth” has the potential to hurt the BJP which in 2014 won a clear majority with 283 seats (well over 300 with allies) in the 543-member Lok Sabha, India’s directly elected lower House of Parliament.
It is also perhaps why Prime Minister Modi, still the most popular pan-India leader with high approval ratings despite being in his fifth year in office, has personally taken the lead in arguing that India’s jobs data-collection systems are in transition.
All three major political groupings in the fray for Election 2019 will, of course, continue to rely on their assiduously built community, caste, kinship and patronage networks to bring in the votes. Identity politics and state-level electoral pacts too are key variables which will impact their fortunes.
For any single party to get a majority, though, it will have to transcend these silos. At the moment, the BJP under Modi is the only one even aiming to do so.