India’s Modi Wraps Himself in the Flag

Narendra Modi looks as if he is on a roll for India’s coming general election, where voting starts on April 11. India’s recent air strike on a terror camp in Pakistan and subsequent fighter jet battle have eclipsed the opposition Congress Party’s state assembly victories last December, enabling him to pitch, in his usual presidential style, that he alone can keep India safe.

It is still possible that this will change before voting ends on May 19 and that Modi’s failure to deliver on many of his 2014 election promises, notably creation of jobs, will become major election issues.

Chief Election Commissioner announces plans

Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaign seems however to have far more momentum than the opposition combine of the Congress Party, headed for the first time in an election by Rahul Gandhi, and allied mostly-regional parties. Gandhi’s personable sister Priyanka has also entered national politics, as a party general secretary, which will help the campaign.

The massive election program involving 900 million eligible voters (Europe’s entire population is just 740 million) and nearly one million voting stations was announced on March 10 by the Election Commission.

Electronic voting will take place on seven dates ending on May 19, and the count will be held on May 23, with the bulk of the results emerging quickly by midday. The current term of the Lok Sabha, parliament’s lower house, runs till June 3.

An example of military political posters banned by the Election Commission (and below) – posted on Twitter by Yogendra Yadav, a political analyst and activist

Assembly polls are also to be held during the same period in Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha (Orissa), and Sikkim, but not in Jammu and Kashmir where the security situation is especially sensitive following the cross-border clashes.

Shortly after the dates were announced, Modi issued a series of tweets saying that “the festival of democracy, elections are here” and urging a big turnout, especially from first time voters.

Social media will play a big role and the Election Commission is bringing it into its model code of conduct, which comes into force today, in an attempt to curb excesses. Candidates and political parties will have to provide details of their social media accounts and expenditure, and political advertisements will require pre-certification.

Modi’s main theme looks like being patriotism and nationalism, built especially on India’s jet fighters crossing the Pakistan border on February 26 and engaging in combat for the first time in nearly 50 years. That was in response to a terror attack in Kashmir on February 14, when some 40 paramilitary troops were killed. There are however doubts about whether India’s jets actually hit their target at Balakot (left) and killed as many as the 250 people claimed by Amit Shah, the BJP president. The Indian Air Force said it had no numbers.

The Election Commission has however said that political parties’ advertisements should not use images of military personnel in their election campaign (above and below). “The armed forces of a nation are…neutral, apolitical stakeholders in a modern democracy,” the commission said, urging parties to exercise “great caution” in invoking the military during the election campaign.

The state assembly elections that Congress won in December, ousting BJP governments, were in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. This was a low point for Modi and the BJP and there was widespread speculation in Delhi about whether he would engineer a crisis with Pakistan to boost his nationalist image.

The terror strike did that for him, enabling him to develop his theme that anyone – including Congress politicians – who criticizes the government, or questions the air force’s success on February 26, is being unpatriotic.

The image of a strong Hindu nationalist India will be pushed by Modi to try to deflect doubts about what his government has actually achieved in terms of job creation and other programs. He also wants to deflect allegations of cronyism and corruption, notably in a French Rafale jet deal that he commissioned.

Modi is frequently criticized for undermining institutions and has been accused by the opposition of arranging for the usually-revered Election Commission to delay the announcement of the election dates so that he could make a splurge of potentially vote-winning announcements.

Mega announcements

The NDTV television channel estimated last night that Modi made 28 trips in the past month to announce 157 projects (plus 60 more in January), several of which had already been announced in the past. They ranged from three new and extended metro railways in the key north India state of Uttar Pradesh, to a highway in in the southern state of Kerala, and a sewerage system in Maharashtra to the west. In the past 15 days, Modi’s cabinet cleared a total of 96 decisions affecting groups such as farmers, the poor, ex-servicemen and government employees.

The election provides a sharp choice between Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its aggressive and divisive Hindu nationalism, and the softer approach of the Congress Party and its allies in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

The choice however is not simple because the BJP has a much stronger economic reform agenda than Congress and its regional allies. That may change when manifestos are published, but the BJP is more reform oriented.

In 2014, Modi was elected by appealing to India’s aspirational youth, with 50 percent of the population below 25. There are as many as 15 million eligible voters aged between 18 and 19 in this election.

Opinion polls

Opinion polls taken before the air battle gave the BJP and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition about 250 to 265 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha, just short of the 272 needed for a simple majority. That is considerably less than the 336 seats that the NDA won in 2014 but is better than the BJP had feared at the end of last year and it would be easy for Modi to entice smaller parties to make up the 272.

The same opinion polls gave Congress’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition 150 to 170 seats, indicating the big gap that Gandhi and the other party leaders have to bridge. Gandhi has failed so far to entice friendly parties into formal alliances in some states, notably Uttar Pradesh (and Delhi, though that might be reviewed). This means that the anti-BJP vote is splintered, making it easier for Modi to win seats.

Poll pundits suggest that if the BJP’s NDA dropped below 200 seats, it would have problems attracting new allies with Modi as prime minister, which could lead to moves within the party to remove him. That prospect was being widely discussed at the turn of the year, but now seems less likely. Nitin Gadkari, the minister for highways and shipping, who is a more approachable inclusive politician than Modi, was then being rumored as the likely alternative candidate.

Some politicians in southern India wanted the timing of yesterday’s announcement, fixed for 5 pm, changed because the period between 4.30 and 6 pm would, they said, be Rahu Kaal or an inauspicious time for the start of any activity. In Vedic astrology, Rahu is an unpredictable planet, and Rahu Kaal lasts for about 90 minutes at different times throughout a week. Modi’s opponents will be hoping that the timing was indeed Rahu Kaal.