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Going beyond India's pre-election Modi hype

Controversial candidate's path to power is not guaranteed

  • John Dayal, Delhi
  • India
  • February 28, 2014
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On the eve of India's general election 10 years ago psephologists and pollsters predicted another term in office for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), then led by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) popular leader and then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

But when the results came, Vajpayee and his NDA failed to get a majority. 

Now, television news channels are once again carpet-bombing the political landscape with surveys that predict doom for the incumbent Congress Party and its alliance. If TV channels are to be believed, Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat state and BJP's prime ministerial candidate, has all but won the upcoming election.

It’s not difficult to see why Modi is so popular among a certain segment of the population.  Many in India say he, as chief minister of Gujarat, presided over the massacre of Muslims in 2002, an act which has seen him being denied a visa to travel to the United States.

At one time, he faced arrest in the UK, as there were two British nationals among the thousands killed in the state. But the very issue that got him US sanctions, and the abhorrence of not just Indian Muslims but national civil society, also made him the “hridaya samrat”, or the King of the Hearts, of majoritarian hyper-nationalist segments of Hindu society, which sees religious minorities as second-class citizens, if not outright anti-nationals.

The Modi rhetoric against Pakistan and his claim of a “development agenda” projected him as a “strong and modern leader.’  Large-scale tax concessions made him the darling of the corporate and industrial sectors. Taken together, here was a man of the moment who in one stroke would lift India out of its economic crisis with his prosperity gospel, and would “teach a lesson” to India’s internal and external enemies, among them militant Muslims and neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh.

For those unfamiliar with sub-continental politics, Pakistan is understood to be fueling Islamic militancy and terrorism in India, while Bangladesh, not a military superpower, is presumed guilty of pushing millions of illegal migrants into India.

Pitted against Modi is the scion of the Gandhi family, 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi, the British-educated development economist pitchforked into leadership as vice-president of the Congress Party. He is, by default, its prime ministerial candidate. The candidature is only presumed, because the party says prime ministers are chosen by elected members of parliament and not by parties or the press.

Gandhi brings a certain freshness and innocence to Indian politics. But his is not the persona that will launch a thousand warships, or threaten India’s militants and Pakistan’s irregular armed militias that routinely penetrate the Kashmir valley.

He is seen as a soft person, almost a namby-pamby. His speeches are full not of aggression and rhetoric, but of plaintive cries for reform. He promises a brave new world in which the poor and the women will be empowered, and where there will be transparency in governance. He may well appeal to the youth, but his political charm remains untested.

This is an unequal media battle. Modi is easily the more media savvy person.  He has excellent professional help in his public relations, with major international image management groups involved in fine-tuning the nitty gritty of a strategy that can sell a prime ministerial candidate to the public with the same finesse that it sells breakfast cereal and skin whitening cream to the upwardly mobile 400 million of India’s 1.2 billion population.

And therein lies the problem for India’s indigenous election forecast companies and American institutions such as the Pew Foundation that said in a recent poll that Modi is more than three times as popular as Gandhi, and the BJP is close to assuming power. 

Most predictions are based on surveys of a population sample that considers urban and rural divides, the youth factor, even education and income. They also consider whether the contest is a direct one, or has three or four major contending parties, which can muddy the waters.

Some surveys take an overview of the caste factor, which plays a critical role in electoral preferences and voter loyalty in almost every state of the country.

The Pew survey seemingly shows no allowance for caste, which adds to the skewed nature of its very small research sample. The predictions are based on a miniscule 2,464 prospective voters. Pew says the sample was weighed to reflect the urban-rural divide, but it must have been a huge challenge considering that there are over 788 million voters for the 523 Lok Sabha seats up for grabs. 

A person surveyed for his views is meant to represent more than 300,000 voters. This means in a constituency with an average of two million votes, only five people were asked their preferences. The margin of error stated by Pew is in excess of 3.8 percent. In “first past the post” elections where margins of victories are often just a few thousand votes, and sometimes a few hundred, it is a moot question if 63 percent “popularity” for the main leader can mean an equally facile victory for his party’s local candidate.

India does not follow the US presidential election system, a direct contest between candidates. India’s parliamentary election system calls for political parties to win a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha, by themselves or in coalition with other parties.

It remains to be seen how many coalition partners the BJP can gather into its National Democratic Alliance. The surveys that project Modi as the most popular leader also go on to show that the NDA will still remain short of a majority.

A poor showing by the Congress, predicted by even the man on the street, would therefore not by itself help Modi become prime minister. To do that, he would not only have to win for his party, but also show an inclusiveness that would encourage other political parties to join him. And inclusiveness is not yet part of Modi's persona.

John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council.

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