India Braces for Elections

India's Congress-led government, beset with a sputtering economy, a prime minister just out of heart surgery and tensions surrounding the November massacre of 160 persons in Mumbai by Islamic extremists, faces the unappetizing prospect of elections sometime in April or May for the 552 seats in the 15th Lok Sabha, the lower House of Parliament.

The five-year-old ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, faces serious headwinds to stay in power. Although the coalition leader Sonia Gandhi wants to stick with the ailing Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, she is being forced to consider other options given Manmohan's uncertain health. He is expected to miss months of campaigning as he recuperates. But Congress party wheelhorses say she doesn't feel the time is right to promote Rahul, her son with her dead husband, Rajiv, who was blown up by Sri Lankan terrorists in 1999. The insiders say the Italian-born matriarch, 63, feels Rahul needs more seasoning. She doesn't want him to make the same mistakes as Rajiv, who she feels was taken for a ride by long-entrenched Congress politicos.

The coalition lost important elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh last year to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party as the economic downturn, inflation and unemployment began to bite after years of 9 percent growth.

Also, for the first time in 30 years the election, compulsory every five years, will be contested on redistricted constitutional boundaries based on the findings of the Delimitation Commission, which have the potential to change the face of Indian politics. The general elections will be accompanied by assembly polls in Orissa, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

Some 670 million voters of India's 1.1 billion population are expected to go to the polls, which were announced recently by India's chief election commissioner, although no precise date has been set.

Mahatma Gandhi once remarked that "India lives in its villages." This political year, the aphorism gains added weight. The political power struggle is shifting to regional and parochial concerns. While the recession, farmer suicides, unemployment, job cuts, underdevelopment and corporate scandals, coupled with terror strikes, insurgencies, secessionist activities, caste and communal factors are issues that will interplay in determining election outcomes, most agree that development will be a major issue. It is one that historically has belonged to Congress since 1980 when Congress's Indira Gandhi's Garibi hatao (remove poverty) slogan promising economic emancipation won her the prime ministry. Political analysts say that mandate may be disappearing again, with Congress losing support because despite strong gains starting in the 1990s the government has been unable to transmit the benefits of globalization and liberalization to its traditional base among the poor and minorities. Unemployment has spiked upwards to about 9.1 percent as the economy has sunk in line with the global economic crisis.

In an effort to keep the economy from sputtering out, the government has slashed key interest rates and announced a US$4 billion supplementary spending package in an effort to aid the auto, property and manufacturing sectors. It has also banned exports of essential commodities, controlled cement prices and delivered such populist measures to push growth such as income tax exemptions and farm loan waivers among others.

Inflation peaked at 12.91 percent before descending back to about 5.5 percent in January. In 2001, the World Bank said that ‘Between 1960 and 1992, a 1 percent increase in inflation in the year before a national election cut the incumbent's share of the vote by 0.6 percentage points, a 1 percent rise in growth just before an election adds 1.66 percentage points to the incumbent's vote'.

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Indeed, political analysts say this may be the first time in years that elections will be fought on economic and development terms, with many lesser parties and their political leaders sharing the turf. India has a huge collection of splinter parties, with at least 15 holding 10 seats or fewer, many with only a single seat. The ruling coalition and predecessors could be stung by an anti-incumbency wave from the new performers.

Although Sonia has been steadfast in backing Manmohan, his ill health may open the doors for other hopefuls such as Pranab Mukherjee or P Chidambaram, both important ministers in the Congress coalition.

Although the name of Priyanka Gandhi, Sonia's daughter, is always bandied by Congress party stalwarts, her participation will be limited to active canvassing along with brother Rahul, who is being portrayed as the face of the Am admi -- common man.

The main opposition, led by the BJP, which lost out in 2004 when allies in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu were defeated, has declared the veteran politician, L K Advani, their PM candidate. A lot of the BJP's performance, however, could rest on the role of Narendra Modi, who as chief minister of Gujarat has brought about some progress in the state and enjoys a clean image.

Although Modi appears to be gravitating towards the center, his reputation for playing to crude communal politics makes him suspect. Recent wins in the state assembly elections of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh for the BJP on a pro-growth agenda and the Congress in Delhi, Rajasthan and Nagaland and the Congress supported National Conference coalition in Jammu and Kashmir have been a morale booster for the respective winners.

Yet, the regional, communist and left parties are looking at the Third Front option against the national parties, with at least one important leader, Mayawati Kumari, fancying her chances of adding to her electoral power as head of the Bahujan Samajan Party.

Mayawati, the incumbent chief minister of the large northern state of Uttar Pradesh, has made it plain that she would like to become prime minister.

Her 'social engineering' has cut into the popularity of Congress, with its large proportion of lower castes) and the BJP's Brahmin and upper-caste electorate. Beyond her stewardship of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati is a heroine to millions of dalits, formerly known as untouchables. Uttar Paradesh, one of India's poorest states, is also one of the biggest electorally with 80 seats in the Lok Sabha which makes Mayawati's position very powerful.

In Karnataka, former Prime Minister H D Gowda is an aspiring kingmaker – or perhaps even king – who is always looking to re-string an arrangement at the federal level with those who oppose the Congress for its dynastic politics and the BJP's Hindutva (rule by a Hindu majority) agenda. Gowda has been the leader of a Third Front coalition at the center.

In Andhra Pradesh, the Chief Minister Rajasekhara Reddy and state opposition party TDP blame each other for the Satyam financial accounting fraud which is India's biggest-ever corporate scandal. Scandals and financial misappropriation have recently rocked the state and the aspiring Indian middle class, making it increasingly difficult for incumbents to build any pre election coalition or understanding.

Sops to the voters have been a tried and tested formula in Tamil Nadu. The DMK, another important regional player, is issuing Rs100,000 annual per-head health insurance cover for more than 10 million poor families. Indeed, the stage is being set for India's political firmament to heat up considerably this summer.

Priyanka Bhardwaj is a journalist based in New Delhi. She can be reached at priyanka2508@yahoo.co.in