When the curtains finally come down on India's "dance of democracy" on May 12, a whopping 814-million strong electorate would have cast their ballots across 543 constituencies in an explosive nine-phase, five-week long general election. These votes will essentially decide the fates (and in some cases, careers) of major national and regional leaders and parties--thereby making these elections one of the most politically charged battle royales in India's recent history.
A deeply-layered and multi-dimensional exercise, the ongoing polls in India are being fought on a wide spectrum of factors: socio-economic development; caste, religious and linguistic diversity and individual personalities of leaders. However, these are all intrinsically linked with one crucial element: hope. As a popular grassroots theory goes, "Indian elections are a game of dreams, sold by candidates and parties. The winner is usually the one who offers the best dreams to the electorate!" . What is perplexing is that for most voters, the realisation of these dreams is immaterial--the only thing that matters is whether or not the dreams offer a glimmer of hope to a voter. And so, every five years, contesting parties and candidates attempt to woo the Indian voter with a torrent of promises--hollow promises, false promises, promises within promises and even promises of keeping promises!
This time around, the interplay of myriad hopes has created an electric election buzz unparalleled in recent history. Parties have gone into an overdrive of grandstanding, brand-building and support mobilisation with an intensity that almost equals voter frustration against scams, corruption and underdevelopment. Empowered with greater access to information than ever before, a large number of Indians cutting across social, regional and economic divides have found themselves bound in the invisible thread of elections together. At social gatherings across rural and urban India, engaging in poll-related discussions has emerged as the new national pastime. Opinions are being formed and cemented at the drop of a hat, and everyone is professing a new found love for psephology. And this inescapable exchange of views is being powered and shaped by the mainstream and social media.
This is also perhaps one of those rare instances, where the contest has been fought on a multitude of planks: communalism vs. secularism, growth vs social development; wave of change vs status quo; inclusive governance vs divisive politics, among others. The presence of powerful regional satraps, and the intense slugfest between the Bharatiya Janata Party's Narendra Modi and Congress' Gandhi Family has clearly split the national voter base--a trend testified by casual interactions in political constituencies. The slow but steady rise of Aam Aadmi Party's Arvind Kejriwal has also made this a potentially game-changing potboiler. But who will have the last laugh on May 16?
"Yeh public hai, sab jaanti hai" (The public knows everything) goes a popular Indian refrain--and therein lies the answer. Whispers on the ground indicate that the BJP--despite the much hyped Modi wave--and the Congress are facing a tough fight from AAP and regional players. Despite riding on the prevailing wave of public disillusionment with the Congress, Modi and his associates have been unable to get rid of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom taint, and are viewed with a communal prism by the minority community and the civil society. This has caused palpable unease among BJP's allies, who may be hesitant in extending support to a Modi-led regime in case the BJP fails to get majority.
Then there is the Congress, which has been fighting a crisis of legitimacy in the wake of multi-billion dollar scams, inflation and weak governance since the last couple of years. On the other hand, the Aam Aadmi Party, which has made inroads in several urban and rural centres, is receiving credible public attention as it fights its first national election. Though doubts have been raised on the extent to which the party has captured public imagination, there is a growing acknowledgment that the AAP may have garnered a significant number of votes--especially from first-time electors-- in strongholds of other parties in India's hinterlands, primarily because of its "clean image."
Differences of opinions notwithstanding, there is consensus among a cross section of academics, voters, journalists and political experts on three distinct aspects: one, that the Congress will lose many of its seats and find itself considerably weaker than ever before. Two, the BJP will gain ground, but not enough to emerge as the single largest party, despite its much-publicised "Modi wave" campaign. Three, the AAP will make a significant debut, but not enough to make a dent at the national stage.
If this scenario were to come true, the outcome would then be decided by India's regional parties--SP, BSP, AIADMK, DMK, TMC, JDU, RJD and the Left. Since not many parties are expected to back Modi as the Prime Minister, the BJP would either need to replace him with a consensus candidate, or allow its potential allies to flock to the UPA instead. At the end, the elections may yet again mark a victory for the regional parties, who will enjoy a significantly increased bargaining power with the new government.
If independent ground reports are to be believed, these regional parties--who possess a tremendous support base in their states--will emerge as the key ringleader of the great Indian election circus, and continue India's tryst with coalition politics. The only question is: can India afford multiple centers of power in its quest for strong governance, inclusive development and higher growth?
(Samarth Pathak is an advocacy and communications professional based in New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)