India voters are carefully weighing the options as they prepare to cast their ballots for not just their favourite party or candidate but their own future in the April 11 to May 19 general elections.
For parties and candidates, it is going to be the hardest fought race in post-independent India. For the first time, nearly 20 opposition parties, though ideologically different, have formed a sort of alliance against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which heads the federal government and rules most states.
Unfortunately, because of the intensity of electoral battles, campaigns have become too personal and abusive with some candidates crossing the line and violating the code of conduct laid out by the chief election commission.
Congress party chief, Rahul Gandhi, one of the prime ministerial aspirants, late last week intervened in BJP affairs and said veteran leader LK Advani was kicked out of the poll race when actually the saffron party was only following a rule not to field septuagenarians like him.
As regards alleged poll code violations, BJP Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath described the Indian Army as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘sena’ (army) at a recent election rally. The so-called champion of the oppressed Mayawati of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) openly appealed to Muslims to vote for the opposition alliance. Suresh Gopi, a BJP candidate, is said to have invoked Hindu god Ayyappa while speaking at an election rally in his Thrissur constituency.
Such alleged poll code breaches are bound to increase when campaigns reach a dead heat in the coming days.
As regards voters, the choice is either a change of government or another term for BJP.
Those who want Modi to be re-elected as prime minister may be obviously looking for a stable and decisive government under a strong leader and not an anti-BJP government likely to fall over leadership and ideological tussles.
Closely linked to political stability and strong leadership is national security which is going to be another deciding factor in this election which comes nearly two months after the Pulwama terror strike by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM).
The manner in which opposition parties responded to that attack and India’s retaliatory airstrikes on JeM terror camps in Balakot has shocked many Indians.
Opposition parties, instead of supporting the federal government and the Indian Air Force, were questioning their decision and action and even demanding proof of Balakot airstrike and the number of terrorists killed. In fact, they were talking like Pakistan and China and a perception began to gain ground that India is safe under Modi’s rule.
The Modi government’s muscular policy on restive Jammu and Kashmir will swing votes both waves.
BJP’s election manifesto says that, if re-elected, the government will withdraw the special status enjoyed by Jammu and Kashmir and remove the state legislature’s powers to define permanent residents. The federal government will also work towards ensuring the return of Kashmiri Pandits, Hindus who originally lived in Kashmir before the rise of Islamist militancy made them flee the valley in the 1990s.
People who sympathise with the so-called ‘struggle’ of Kashmiri Muslim youth will vote for the opposition alliance or Congress while those who want peace and progress in Jammu and Kashmir will vote for BJP.
Like the war against terrorism, anti-corruption fight is going to influence voters’ decision.
Disgusted with corrupt Congress-led governments in the past, people voted BJP to power in 2014 elections. Since the Modi government made every effort to curb corruption, they may get another term.
Two most wanted financial fugitives Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi, who defrauded banks during the Congress rule, are in the process of being extradited from the UK to India. Dubai has already extradited an arms dealer Christian Michel linked to the AgustaWestland chopper scandal. His diaries revealed kickbacks given to bureaucrats, a top Congress leader and a strong political family.
Illegal cash amounting to more than $200 million meant to fund election campaigns were seized during recent raids across the country.
Multiple raids linked to former aides of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamalnath have unearthed unaccounted cash amounting to millions and the money trail has led to a top Congress man in New Delhi allegedly linked to AgustaWestland chopper scandal.
Besides fighting corruption, the Modi government has scored high in providing subsidies over home loans for the homeless, banking access and gas connection to the poor, electrification of villages, women’s empowerment and incentives to start-ups. However, media reports say the government did not do well on the job front. According to them, jobless youth may vote against the BJP.
The federal government has rubbished media reports, saying most new jobs remain unnoticed as they have been created in the informal sector.
Start-ups, infrastructure, construction and tourism got a big push under the Modi government and jobs were naturally created in these sectors. India’s economic growth of over 7% would have been impossible if people were not engaged in gainful employment, the government argues.
Minorities generally see BJP as a Hindu party guided by the cultural group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. But BJP has time and again tried to convince them that it has members and ministers representing minorities. But minority leaders are not convinced. For them, Congress and opposition alliance are more secular and acceptable.
Since the opposition alliance partners BSP and Samajwadi Party have distanced from Congress, both are trying to woo minority voters along with India’s grand old party.
BJP scoffs at such moves by arguing that minorities are mature enough to look beyond their religion. For minorities, what matters is basic needs like cooking gas and power connection, according to BJP.
In the final analysis, no political pundit or survey can gauge the minds of millions of voters and the unexpected may happen on May 23 when all votes are counted.