An Indian election is a marathon, not a sprint. Voting will start on April 7, but the voting will move around the country in nine phases, ending on May 12. Then the votes will all be counted — there are 814 million eligible voters — and the result will be known on May 16.
A lot of people think they know the result now: Narendra Modi of the BJP will be prime minister, and India will swing right.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party) is a socially conservative, Hindu nationalist party that has had only one full term in national office, in 1998-2004. That time, it led a broad coalition that restrained its more extreme sectarian impulses. This time, however, many Indian observers claim to detect a “Modi wave” of support that might carry the BJP into power on its own. That would certainly make for interesting times.
Modi is best known for (1) the remarkable economic growth and relative freedom from corruption of his home state of Gujarat, and (2) his alleged complicity in the massacre of more than 1,000 Muslims during religious riots shortly after he became chief minister of Gujarat in 2001.
The prosperity of Gujarat is obviously a political asset for him. The problem is that his alleged religious extremism is also an asset in the view of some of his potential supporters. Indeed, that is probably why Modi has never expressed any regret or offered any apologies for the riots, an omission that many see as disqualifying him for high political office.
One such is Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister for the last 10 years, who said when announcing his retirement in January: “It would be disastrous for the country to have Narendra Modi as the next prime minister. If by a strong prime minister they mean you preside over the massacre of innocent citizens on the streets … I do not believe that is the sort of strength this country needs.”
But the ruling Congress Party is weighed down by corruption scandals and slowing economic growth, and Congress’ candidate for prime minister is none other than Rahul Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather have all held the job in the past. Rahul’s political ideas seem half-formed, his rhetoric struggles under the burden of words like “empowerment,” and he is seriously lacking in novelty value.
Hence the “Modi wave.” The BJP currently leads Congress by a wide margin in the opinion polls: a January poll gave it 34 percent of the vote, almost twice as much as it got in the last national election in 2009. Voters prefer Modi to Gandhi as prime minister in virtually every state — and among 18-to-25-year-old voters, the BJP outpolls Congress almost two to one.
So the pundits are speculating on how a BJP government would behave if it were led by Modi and had no need of coalition partners. There is no precedent for that. Last time the BJP government was a complicated coalition led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a poet and intellectual of moderate views, and none of its more extreme nationalist and Hindu positions got translated into actual policies.
If it were different this time, then India would be moving into unknown waters, and the possibilities would be as alarming as they were extreme. But that may just be Indian journalists trying to inject a little more tension and excitement into the story. The reality is probably rather less exciting.
Thirty-four percent of the vote is much better than the BJP got last time, but it doesn’t get you a majority in the parliament. In fact, it leaves you about 50 seats short of a majority, which tumbles you back into the real world of coalitions and deals, and having to put aside your cherished sectarian goals in order to make the deals work. Just like last time, even if your name is Narendra Modi.
Getting to 50 percent of the vote is almost impossible for any political party in the Indian political system, because a good deal of the vote always goes to regional and local parties that are quite separate from the big national parties. It’s especially hard for the BJP, because it’s hard to imagine that any of the 13 percent of Indians who are Muslim would vote for the BJP.
There are 39 parties in the current parliament, and there may be even more in the next one. Most of them would be willing to join a coalition government in return for concessions on whatever local or regional issues they or their voters care about, but they will also have red lines that must not be crossed or they will leave the coalition.
Assuming that the outcome of the election does leave the BJP as the biggest party, but without an overall majority, those red lines will probably confine Modi to relatively moderate policies on religious issues.
If not, then India is in for a wild ride, and at the end of it, the country may no longer be known for its tolerance.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.