x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The temperature heats up in India’s crucial elections

In Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, the prince and the former tea-seller face off

Campaigning on the outskirts of Delhi last weekend, the territory’s chief minister and Congress party leader Sheila Dikshit was informed by local residents that an opposition politician had attempted to sabotage her stop on the campaign trail by deliberately smashing a sewage pipe.

Mrs Dikshit’s brow visibly furrowed at the news, but she continued to talk to the assembled throng. Promising amenities that the rest of Delhi has now begun to take for granted, including better government schools, a largely underground metro system as well as cheaper electricity than Gujarat, it must have dawned on her that the battle for Delhi, for which elections are being held in early December, has already become much more than her own political contest.

Delhi also plays host to the central government, run for the last nine years by a Congress-led alliance headed by economist-turned-prime minister Manmohan Singh, which means that national issues of inflation and corruption are being conflated with local issues like clean drinking water, traffic and pollution.

Besides Delhi, four other provinces – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh and Mizoram – are going to the polls over the next month, representing a semi-final to the general elections that will take place in mid-2014, in which the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has aggressively pitched Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate.

Although there is no place in the Indian parliamentary system for US-style campaigning, the head-to-head political confrontation in recent weeks between Rahul Gandhi, the Congress leader, and Mr Modi is the closest India has come to a presidential campaign.

Certainly, this face-off between a political dynast and a man who came up in life selling tea in train compartments in Gujarat, is riveting political theatre. Mr Modi has taken to taunting Mr Gandhi as a “shehzada” or “prince”, alluding to his family history.

On Sunday, Mr Modi was in the Hindi heartland of Patna, the capital of Bihar state, whose chief minister last year broke with the BJP over Mr Modi’s polarising politics.

A series of bomb blasts had just ended when Mr Modi’s helicopter landed in Patna and over the next hour or so he regaled the huge crowds with his denunciation of Rahul Gandhi, criticism of Pakistan and the need for “poor Hindus” and “poor Muslims” to work together to combat poverty.

But there was not one word, gesture or signal to indicate any remorse that he may have felt towards the massacre of nearly 1,000 Muslims in the Gujarat riots that took place during his chief ministership in 2002.

Back in Delhi, also this Sunday, Mr Gandhi was holding his own rally in a corner of Delhi, lauding Mrs Dikshit’s achievements in the capital. He also pointed to the party’s welfare record in promoting rights-based governance, such as the Right to Information Act, as well as pro-poor interventions such as the Food Security Act, which guarantees cheap rice and wheat to India’s vast population.

The crowd at Mr Modi’s rally was significantly larger than those gathered to hear Rahul Gandhi, an indication of the interest that he has aroused in the people in his own ambition to sit on the throne of Delhi. In compelling contrast is the complete lacklustre figure cut by Mr Singh, whose reputation for honesty and integrity has taken some beating over the gathering perception that he allowed the rampant looting of precious natural resources such as coal and spectrum for telecom services, even if he didn’t participate in it.

The Congress party is keenly aware that the impression of widespread policy paralysis in the heart of government has scared away foreign investors, impacted economic growth and dented the confidence of the lay public. Mr Modi is capitalising on the fact that nature abhors a vacuum and that he has the exact recipe to fill it.

Adding to the travails of the Congress party is the perception of Mr Singh and party president Sonia Gandhi pulling in different directions, for example over the $2 billion (Dh7.35bn) that needs to be spent annually on the Food Security Act.

The prime minister has argued that the country cannot afford the expenditure, especially in a faltering economy, but Sonia insisted the government shell out the money.

That is why the emphasis is on Delhi. It has not only been India’s key city for more than 1,000 years and it is also the state that holds the greatest stakes for the Congress party, which is not expected to win any of the other three big states in November’s provincial polls.

If the Congress retains Delhi, the symbolic victory will allow it to give the BJP a good fight in the 2014 general elections that follow. If it loses Delhi, the fight will have largely gone from the Congress party.

Clearly, notwithstanding the gentle onset of winter, the political temperature is hotting up in India.

Jyoti Malhotra is a political observer based in New Delhi