India Polls Set for April 7

A few days after May 16, India’s Congress Party and the Gandhi family that head it will have been swept from power and a new government headed quite probably by Narendra Modi, the Hindu-nationalist driven and feared Bharatiya Janata Party chief minister of Gujarat will take office. This will, if the BJP has a sufficiently large mandate, lead to significant changes across a wide range of policies and will give the business community and financial markets a surge of optimism

The dates for the polls, which were announced by the Election Commission this morning, run from April 7 to May 12 and involve 814 million voters (100m more than in 2009), and 930,000 voting stations (up 12 percent). The count will take place on May 16, and the results will be announced quickly on that day by India’s electronic voting system. How quickly a government is formed will depend on how clear the result is and whether the BJP needs to win over more parties to add to its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) total.

It is of course impossible to forecast the result but, judging by recent polls, Congress and its underachieving leader Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia are heading for a catastrophic defeat. So great is the drubbing likely to be that some commentators are wondering whether Congress will survive until the next election or whether it will splinter and re-form in some way with the new anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that did astonishingly well in Delhi state assembly elections at the end of last year

That is a rather extreme theory and whether it has any prospect of happening depends on the number of seats that Congress wins. If it manages 100, then Rahul Gandhi will surely be given a chance to fight another elevation, but if it were under say 40 or 50, all bets would be off.

Polls indicate that Modi is gaining broad support across the country, including areas in the south where the BJP has never had a base, as well as in the key northern state of Uttar Pradesh where Modi seems to be rebuilding the BJP’s former appeal. The question is whether that leads the BJP and its allies in the NDA to win around 200 seats, and whether Modi would then be able to gain enough other parties’ support to reach the 272 needed for a majority in the Lok Sabha.

That seems probable following extensive campaigning by Modi who is establishing his potential as a national leader and, in the process, is reducing the negative effect of Gujarat’s 2002 riots for which he is widely blamed. The communal violence resulted in the deaths of nearly 800 Muslims and 254 Hindus.There was widespread looting and destruction of property.

The unknown here is the AAP, which ruled Delhi for just 45 days and then resignedwhen an anti-corruption Lok Pal (ombudsman) bill that it wanted to introduce was not allowed under the constitution. During those 45 days it ruled unconventionally and chaotically, with its leader Arvind Kejriwal staging sit-ins and other street level demonstrations instead of conventional office and state assembly activities.

That has led the middle class, which formed Kejriwal’s original anti-corruption support base, to despair. But he has, reports suggest, increased his appeal among the less well-off and the AAP is likely to do well in Delhi’s general election constituencies. How well it does elsewhere, and whether it will manage to repeat its Delhi type of surprise results and win enough seats elsewhere to become a significant player after the election seems unlikely but not impossible.

If Modi fails to do as well as polls currently suggest, regional parties will become significant, some of whom formed a third front last week, raising the possibility of a muddled directionless coalition with various ambitious regional leaders ranging from the erratic unpredictable Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal and the more middle class but unreliable J.Jayalalitha of Tamil Nadu to Nitish Kumar of Bihar, whose political fortunes have slipped in recent months..

As a journalist I have often been queried on my use of the words Hindu nationalist for the BJP but Modi has disposed of that problem because he described himself as one in an interview last year with Reuters. “I am nationalist. I’m patriotic. Nothing is wrong. I am born Hindu. Nothing is wrong. So I’m a Hindu nationalist. So yes, you can say I’m a Hindu nationalist because I’m a born Hindu,” he told Reuters news agency in an interview in his official residence in Gandhinagar.

So watch out for a nationalist Hindu-inclined surge across the country if the election produces the result that, on present indications, seems likely.

(John Elliott is the Asia Sentinel’s India correspondent, based in New Delhi. He also blogs under the title Riding the Elephant, which can be found on the right side of this page.)