The imminent announcement of poll dates for elections to the assemblies of six states—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Mizoram, and Jammu and Kashmir—will kick off India’s big bang poll season. These elections will likely set the tone for Lok Sabha polls, scheduled to take place early next year and could provide indications as to which formation—be it the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) or a motley coalition of regional parties often described as the Third Front—is likely to rule India next.
As India goes to polls early next year, let me list the major issues that are likely to dominate the election campaign and their likely impact.
State of the economy
There is a lot of bad news coming from the economy front as the much acclaimed and hyped India’s growth story is beginning to fade away. Falling industrial production, tumbling stock markets and the weakening rupee are causing major worries about the nation’s economy. The global economic crisis is taking a huge toll?of the Indian economy, too.
More than the macroeconomic trends, what is a huge worry for people are the spiralling prices. Although the rate of inflation has shown a marginal decline in recent weeks, it is feared that owing to the global economic crisis, it is unlikely to come down rapidly before the end of the current financial year when Lok Sabha elections are likely to be held.
There is a widespread perception among the masses that “high prices” are the most glaring failure of the UPA regime in the past five years. Thus, there is every possibility of “high prices” emerging as a huge issue in the next Lok Sabha polls, which could severely dent the UPA’s prospects.
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For instance, in the Karnataka polls, the BJP ran a campaign against the high prices during the UPA regime and published advertisements comparing prices of essential commodities during the erstwhile NDA and the present UPA regimes. It was a simple idea but it worked. The BJP can be expected to make prices a major election issue in the forthcoming assembly and Lok Sabha polls.
Time is ticking away for the UPA regime, which appears to be watching the situation haplessly and has so far made no efforts to mitigate the negative effects of spiralling inflation.
A spate of terror strikes in different cities in quick succession had forced the UPA government to act tough on terror modules out of fear of a voter backlash. The tough action has, however, had a negative fallout as Muslims have begun to feel that the government is out to tarnish the image of the community and is persecuting the youth of the community by labelling them terrorists.
Attempts are afoot in some states to wean away the minority vote from the Congress in favour of other “secular” parties. Whether this would indeed cause any erosion of minority vote for the Congress party would be evident in the ensuing assembly polls. For instance, a section of Muslims in Delhi is angry over the Jamia Nagar shoot-out in which some Muslim youth suspected to be terrorists were killed. As Muslims in Delhi usually vote overwhelmingly in favour of the Congress party, the impact of all this on the community’s support for the party will be closely watched.
Loan waiver scheme
Waiver of farm loans has generated positive vibes among farmers in general about the Central government. But, it has also created a wedge between farmers who have benefited from the scheme and those who haven’t. Small and marginal farmers, who constitute a majority, do not have as much access to institutional credit and even when they access such loans, they tend to repay them well in time to avoid any penal action. By the time the loan waiver scheme was announced earlier this year, most of them had already repaid their loans.
This has led to a widespread perception among farmers with small landholdings that the waiver benefited only large farmers. As a result, while the Congress-led UPA is likely to benefit electorally from the increased support of large farmers, any attempt to raise the pitch on loan waiver decision in election campaigns runs the risk of alienating non-beneficiaries of the scheme, who constitute a much larger majority.
The Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, which has been hailed as the high point of the UPA government’s success, appears to have already faded from public memory. The signing of the deal has generated no enthusiasm in the country and the Congress party’s hopes of raising it as a major poll issue may simply not work. Whatever little steam is left in the issue, it will be impossible to sustain it until next year’s Lok Sabha polls.
With the general election barely a few months away, it appears that the Congress-led UPA does not yet have a potent campaign issue on the back of which it can ride to power again. If the government fails to control prices and set the economy on track, it could be curtains for it. The outcome of the assembly polls will indicate just what sort of reception awaits the UPA at the hustings.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a Delhi-based research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com