NEW DELHI -- The world may soon have to contend with a new Indian prime minister who is poles apart from the one it has known for the past decade. All opinion polls and media reports from the field indicate victory for the National Democratic Alliance led by the Hindu nationalist right wing Bharatiya Janata Party. Its candidate to head the government, Narendra Modi, is currently riding on the crest of unprecedented popularity.
The big loser in the elections is going to be the Indian National Congress, a party that has governed India for most of the time since the country gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Its fortunes, both good and bad, have been shaped, directly or otherwise, by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Those calling the shots now are the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul with daughter Priyanka active behind the scenes. The mother and son duo face the prospect of sitting on the opposition benches along with the lowest number of Congress members elected to parliament. Meanwhile, Dr. Manmohan Singh, who has completed two successive terms in office as prime minister, is about to ride into the sunset.
What fate awaits the other players in the electoral fray is still a matter of some conjecture -- except in the case of two Communist parties that seem to be headed for oblivion. These players, harping on caste and/or regional identities, have sufficient clout in three out of the four southern states (Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka), one in the west (Maharashtra), two large states in north India (Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) and two in eastern India (West Bengal and Odisha) to challenge the hegemonic ambitions of the two national political formations. Current estimates are that they can together win around a hundred seats.
Should the NDA fall short of a majority (272 seats) it can reach out to these regional players. At one time or the other, all of them have done business with the BJP in the past. They may do so yet again even though most hope to forge a so-called third front or federal front that could form the government with outside support from one of the two national parties. But that would be akin to chasing a chimera. For one thing, every leader of a regional party nurses prime ministerial ambitions. For another, the only glue that could bind them is not a shared set of policies and programmes but a chance to share the spoils of office. Such an unseemly coalition is certain to crumble under the weight of its contradictions within months, if not earlier. It is therefore unlikely to see the light of day.
A big question mark also hovers over the prospects of the new kid on the block -- the Aam Aadmi Party (party of the common man) whose single point agenda is to rid India of pervasive corruption in all walks of public life. It stunned political pundits when it formed the local government in Delhi but then frittered away the gains after relinquishing office after a mere seven weeks. In the meantime, its anarchic conduct to attract media attention also proved to be counter-productive. Opinion polls suggest that AAP could win in no more than eight or ten constituencies though its candidates could prove to be spoilers for the Congress, and especially for the BJP, in at least a score others. Arguably the most interesting contest would be in Varanasi (Benares) where AAP's leader, Arvind Kejriwal, is pitted against Narendra Modi.
All eyes are, however, on the latter. Liberals loathe him for the mass murder of Muslims under his watch in Gujarat in 2002, his adherence to the deeply divisive ideology of Hindutva, his muscular definition of nationalism, his often dubious boast about his economic achievements and, not least, his arrogant personality that brooks no dissent. But for his supporters -- hardcore right-wing Hindu nationalists, young voters, large swathes of the urban middle-class and, above all, the business community -- he alone has what it takes to extricate India from the quagmire of economic sloth, massive corruption, poor governance, military unpreparedness, a foreign policy in tatters and a severely dented sense of national pride.
"For Modi supporters -- hardcore right-wing Hindu nationalists, young voters, large swathes of the urban middle-class and, above all, the business community -- he alone has what it takes to extricate India from the quagmire of economic sloth, massive corruption, poor governance, military unpreparedness, a foreign policy in tatters and a severely dented sense of national pride."
The number of his supporters continues to swell as the election dates approach. On the strength of an unprecedented publicity campaign in both the mainstream and the social media, Modi -- a tireless campaigner, a powerful, if rabble-rousing, orator, an astute, if ruthless, tactician -- has skillfully managed to turn the parliamentary contest into a presidential one. His face and his name alone figure on posters and in TV advertising shots. The cult of personality causes jitters even in sections of his own party.
On account of his strident nationalism, rooted in right-wing Hindu ideology, and the pro-market policies he espouses, his critics fear the emergence of 'soft fascism' in India while for those very reasons his fans hail him as Kalki -- the last avatar of the Hindu divinity Vishnu who will bring peace and prosperity in abundance to the hapless motherland. Both the fear and the hope are far-fetched. India's diversity and democracy will ensure that Modi's brand of macho politics will be held in check. India's Leviathan bureaucracy and compulsions of coalition politics will also ensure that his big-ticket ideas to reform India's economy and polity are stymied.
All the same, India, and the world at large, will have to reckon with a leader who is anything but a meek and submissive Oriental and, even less, a western-educated gentleman craving to be toasted in the chancelleries, think-tanks and media of powerful countries around the globe. This is a man who flaunts his modest origins -- a tea-seller born in a backward caste - and his lack of formal education in prestigious universities the better to advertise the virtues of intuition, resolve, hard work, meritocracy and unbridled patriotism -- virtues that seem to hold the young generation of aspirational Indians in thrall.
He reckons that these Indians are tired of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, of parties professing secularism (that pay scant heed to Islamic extremism and terrorism) and of parties promoting populist policies (that are a huge and unproductive burden on the public exchequer.) That leaves only one genuine player in the field: Narendra Modi. The questions he asks are often sound. But the answers he gives are often problematic. India's rightward swing thus presages both promise and peril. Either way, come May 17, when the election results are announced, India will begin to become, in James Baldwin's ominous phrase, another country.