x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

One politician eyes the exits, and two size-up each other in India

Neither Rahul Gandhi or Narendra Modi has been named a prime ministerial candidate, but the buzz is inescapable. A new kind of politics is in the offing.

India's main opposition, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), elevated Gujarat's controversial chief minister, Narendra Modi, to two key panels last month, bringing him one step closer to being named the party's prime ministerial candidate and enhancing the buzz around the possibility of holding general elections sooner than they are scheduled for the summer of 2014.

With an electorate of over 700 million people at last count, India's general elections are the world's largest exercise in democracy. The sheer variety of sights and sounds emanating from India's multiple political parties has sometimes likened the polls to a festival that is held usually every five years. Unlike several other developing countries, however, in India this also accompanies a peaceful transfer of power of the opportunity to lead 1.2 billion people.

In recent weeks, talk of an early election has risen perceptibly (despite frequent denials) after the grievous blow to the Congress-led coalition by its own alliance partner from Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The DMK withdrew its support over the question of rights violations against the Tamil community in Sri Lanka.

Despite this withdrawal of support, the government is not likely to fall, at least not in the immediate future. All parties realise that power is a fickle thing and may elude them when the ballot boxes are finally opened. Those in government know that the avalanche of scams over the past year has damaged its reputation, and those in the opposition wonder whether that taint will be enough to unseat the ruling coalition.

And yet, while coalition support slips from the hands of India's rulers, like sand through their collective fingers, an indefinable paralysis of policy seems to have overtaken the government. Decisions are being indefinitely postponed, laws are passed but hardly implemented, and the unusual power-sharing arrangement between Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh finally seems to be coming apart at the seams.

The Congress party is suffering from an additional handicap, that of a reluctant political prince. Rahul Gandhi, Sonia's son, has been averse to showing his cards about his political future and how it might fit into India's destiny. As vice-president of the Congress party he has preferred to focus on revamping the youth wing over the past decade, but remains shy about going public with his own vision.

Unusually, at a meeting with Indian industrialists last week, Mr Gandhi spoke of the need to galvanise the imagination of a billion people.

Within Congress, one faction is in favour of early polls, soon after assembly elections in the southern state of Karnataka, which it is expected to win in May. According to this school of thought, it would be a good idea to capitalise on the euphoria and deflect the everyday bad tidings that accompany rising fuel prices as well as inflation.

As for the faction-ridden BJP, trouble simmers below the surface. At the party's reshuffle of its top leadership, another three-time BJP chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh, was refused a seat. The move set off another flurry of speculation over winners and losers in the party's metaphorical snakes-and-ladders.

Certainly, the BJP's vocal grassroots cadre is clear about what it wants: Mr Modi. The man has so consolidated his hold over Gujarat as well as the BJP that his elevation to a premium post is all but inevitable.

The big question is whether Mr Modi can transfer this grip over state and party onto a much larger and much more complex Indian canvas and become acceptable to the wider electorate. A key issue is whether he will accept responsibility for the anti-Muslim riots that took place over February and March 2002 on his watch, in which about 1,000 people were killed. The riots were allegedly in retaliation for the death of 54 Hindu pilgrims who were burnt alive in a train in a small Gujarati town called Godhra.

Those behind the Godhra incident have never been caught, and Mr Modi has never been indicted by any Indian court, although a former minister in his government, Maya Kodnani, was recently sentenced for her role in the riots.

Mr Modi has focused on development and governance issues in Gujarat and succeeded in visibly improving the standard of living in the state, even though the Congress party contends that socio-economic indicators like malnutrition and female and child mortality still remain unforgivably high.

Mr Modi's response has been to argue that the mantra of progress should be applied across the national landscape, although he hasn't openly admitted yet that he wants to be the one to do it.

And so it goes in India, as summer begins irrevocably to invade the landscape. All the signs of a political battle between a reluctant Mr Gandhi and an ambitious Mr Modi seem to be on the cards, whether or not elections are held as scheduled a year from now or before.

Neither Mr Gandhi or Mr Modi has been named a prime ministerial candidate, but the buzz is inescapable.

A new kind of politics is in the offing, but not just yet. The only certainty is that Mr Singh, a technocrat prime minister who cast India in a different mould, is playing the final hours of his last innings.


Jyoti Malhotra is a political and foreign affairs analyst based in Delhi

On Twitter: @jomalhotra