Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 April 2004
Issue No. 685
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Congress contests BJP's secular image

Vajpayee hopes that a growing "feel good factor" in India will help him win a second mandate as the world's largest democracy heads to the polls later this month, writes Jaideep Mukerji from New Delhi

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India's main opposition leader Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress Party, shakes hands with tribal women (photo: AP)

Over a two-week span beginning on 15 April, an electorate equal in size to the combined populations of Europe and the entire Middle East will cast their votes and choose a new government in India.

With over 160 political parties vying for some 543 seats in the Lok Sabha -- the national assembly -- India's estimated 650 million eligible voters are trying to make sense of a complex political landscape awash with the political doublespeak, shifting alliances and political intrigue that have become a defining characteristic of Indian elections.

While India's intricate and deeply fragmented electorate make accurate election results difficult to predict, most polls indicate that the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), an oftentimes fractious 14-party coalition led by Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Bharatiya Jananta Party (BJP), stands a good chance of winning a fresh mandate.

Although his term was not set to expire until October this year, Vajpayee took the decision to go ahead with early elections in order to capitalise on the "India Shinning" phenomenon, a term coined to describe the booming economy, warming relations with Pakistan and India's growing clout on the international scene.

Indeed, with an electoral platform focussing primarily on India's impressive GDP growth rate of over seven per cent in 2003 and Vajpayee's image as being a solid and competent leader, the BJP's campaign is conspicuously devoid of the fiery nationalist rhetoric that helped launch the party to power in the 1990s. Even Hindutva -- the BJP's guiding nationalistic ideology preaching "Hinduness" for India and strict self-sufficiency -- has been toned down as the BJP tries to broaden its appeal.

Though it already claims to be a national party "with a difference" the BJP is keenly aware that its strength derives mostly from a few select states where Hindu nationalist sentiments run high. This means the party is dependent on creating coalitions with smaller parties from other parts of the country to keep it in power, leading to a precarious and sometimes uneasy alliance that at one time included as many as 24 parties.

Now that a resounding 75 per cent of Indians strongly oppose the use of religion for political gains -- as a recent survey in the Times of India shows -- BJP officials are, unsurprisingly, betting that a kinder, more secular approach might help the party consolidate its national standing and reduce its dependency on political allies.

Critics of the BJP, however, denounce the party's new secular stance as a disingenuous vote- grabbing scheme. Kapil Sibal, spokesperson for the BJP's main opponent in the elections, the Indian National Congress Party, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the BJP's new secular image is "totally fraudulent".

"The BJP brushed aside their previous 45 years of policies in a single stroke, mainly so they can present themselves as a more moderate party in order to gain power," he said. "How do you believe a political party if they change their entire agenda overnight only for the sake of power?"

Although Congress is today a far cry from the "grand old party" that first led India to independence and subsequently governed the country for the better part of India's first 50 years of independence, the party remains a potent political force. Congress President Sonia Gandhi -- the wife of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi -- recently told reporters that she was "100 per cent confident" that her party would regain power in these elections because Congress was "the only true national party; our policies are for everyone, for all sections of society".

Congress Party officials are also hoping that a good showing from the newest Gandhi family member to enter the fray, Sonia Gandhi's son Rahul, will help boost the party's sagging political fortunes. The 33-year-old political newcomer's first foray into the political arena is generating a great deal of media buzz, which officials hope will translate into greater support for Congress at the national level.

For all Congress's optimism, however, success at the ballot box is far from certain. The party is still smarting from decisive losses in four state elections held last December, and internal division over Sonia Gandhi's foreign origins and lack of political experience threatens to undermine the party's unity.

Leadership issues aside, Congress's other major headache is that its stature as a national party is in fact one of its biggest liabilities. Whereas the BJP's lack of a national power base compels them to naturally seek out partners, Congress's political presence across India means that they have proven far less willing and skilled at building coalitions.

Sabil told the Weekly, however, that these elections marked a turning point for Congress. According to him, being out of power for nearly a decade taught Congress some tough lessons, and he insisted that Congress was now in fact the party best suited to creating coalitions.

"We have learned a lot in our time out of power," he said. "We have now adopted coalition politics based on ideological similarities based on principles of secularism. We are not in collusion with any party that does not share our ideology," adding that "the BJP on the other hand, builds [coalitions] based on rank opportunism."

BJP Spokesperson Nahil Kohri, however, dismissed such accusations by saying that "the BJP builds coalitions through consensus. Congress builds coalitions on compulsion," and pointed out that the Congress coalition is deeply divided over whether or not Sonia Gandhi, whose foreign origins are seen as a political liability, would be their choice for prime minister.

"How can you vote for a coalition that cannot even decide on their leader let alone their political agenda?" he told the Weekly.

The sharp criticism coming from both parties is reflective of the increasingly nasty and personal nature of the campaign, with both parties now focussing more on trading insults than delving into substantial policy debates. With the first round of polling beginning on 20 April and the last one wrapping up on 10 May, neither side shows any sign of slowing down or easing up their attacks on the other in the final weeks of the election campaign. Official results are scheduled to be announced on 13 May.

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