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India looks for a prime minister who is the anti-thesis of Manmohan Singh

by A. Surya Prakash

As the battle for the ballot enters the final phase and political leaders slug it out in the scorching heat of May, a few obvious trends have come to the surface across the country. While it is never easy to forecast the number of seats each party will bag in a country which has about 50 national and regional parties vying for seats in the lower House of Parliament, it is possible to pick up signals about which way the wind is blowing and also get the general drift of the arguments for or against the incumbent government or the main opposition party.

Since voting trends depend upon a host of variables in India including region, religion, caste, gender and class, some experience in assessing electoral trends in different regions of the country would be essential to avoid the minefields and get a sense of peoples' inclinations. While this writer has done pre-election surveys for media organizations for over four decades, it must be emphasized that even the most seasoned election analyst can go wrong at times because of the political plurality that one encounters in every region and sub-region of India and the varying concerns of electors in the different states. Having put in this caveat, this writer will attempt to sum up the prevailing mood in the country following recent tours in some sample states in different regions.

One trend that has been visible since the decline of one-party rule and emergence of regional political parties in different states and the formation of coalition governments at the federal level , is that the state level electoral preferences of voters usually got reflected in a parliament election as well. In other words, if the people of Orissa voted the Biju Janata Dal to power in an election to the state assembly, they would continue to repose faith in the same party if an election to Parliament were to be held soon after the state assembly election. This could however change if the election to the state assembly was held some years ago and an anti-incumbency mood set in among the electorate in that state. In such a situation, the voters would swing against that party and vote candidates put up by the principle opposition party in the state. In either case, the factor determining voter preference would be local and not national. While there have been some exceptions to this rule, this has been the general inclination of voters and the fact that it is an election to Parliament has often been glossed over.

The 2014 election however may be different because indications are that this time, voters may buck this trend. Unlike in the past, voters in many states in the Northern, Central, Eastern, Western and Southern regions say that state-level politics and their electoral preferences at the local level do not matter in this election. They say the question before them in this election is "Who should govern India" and they propose to answer that question through the ballot. This means that after a long time, electors in many states in the country will rise above regional and caste considerations which influence their voting preferences locally and take a call on the kind of government they want in New Delhi.

This is one distinct trend that is visible in different regions of the country and this trend appears to have crystalised over the past year or so and has much to do with the omissions and commissions of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in recent years. While committed supporters of the Congress Party and its allies in the UPA continue to back the alliance, the UPA's detractors are now legion and there is much disappointment about the performance of the Prime Minister, Mr.Manmohan Singh, his leadership (or more correctly, the absence of it), his stony silence even in the face of calamities or even aggression from across the border and his failure to prevent blatant acts of corruption by his ministers. The barbaric treatment of Indian soldiers by the Pakistan Army and the reports of regular Chinese intrusions into Indian territory and the pusillanimous response of the Union Government to these incidents has left many voters sad and angry. Finally, the real clincher is the nation-wide feeling that Mr.Singh is not in control of his government and that he is subject to remote control. This is the general perception and assessment of the overall persona of Mr.Singh among voters barring diehard supporters of the UPA coalition.

Voters in different parts of the country state some or other of these reasons as influencing their voting decision in 2014 and say that they want a Prime Minister who has the following qualifications: He must be decisive; he must speak up for India; he must rejuvenate the economy; he must step up development; he must be in control of the government; he must provide a corruption-free government.

At first glance, this would seem like a tall order. But then one must note that the length of the peoples' wish list is directly proportional to their disillusionment with the incumbent government. There can be no doubt that there is a strong anti-incumbency wave in many parts of the country and the voters are thirsting for a change.

Apart from all this, there is another significant demand. The voters seem to want the next Prime Minister to head a "majbhooth sarkar" (a strong government), meaning thereby that they are no longer comfortable with unstable coalitions at the federal level. While the people blame Mr.Singh for what they see as a state of paralysis in the Union Government, they are not oblivious to the fact that he heads an unstable coalition kept afloat by greedy and unethical partners. Prime Minister Singh describes this constraint as "coalition dharma" and says that he is hamstrung by it. But the public perception is that this is actually "coalition adharma", and that a strong-willed Prime Minister call always call the bluff of his allies, discipline the fractious partners and ensure that the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) retains its authority and control over government.

In addition, the voters appear to be deeply conscious of the fact that multi-party coalitions have weakened the Union Government and virtually stripped the Prime Minister of the powers vested in him by the Constitution to choose a team of his choice and to appoint and dismiss members of his cabinet at will. This has enfeebled the PMO and reduced it to a caricature of what it was even a decade ago. Voters' responses seem to indicate that this trend needs to be reversed if one has to have a "majbhooth sarkar" and a "decisive PM". This understanding of the pitfalls of electing a coalition government at the Centre gels with the desire of voters in many states and regions to rise above caste, region and such other considerations while voting in this parliamentary election, so that the primary question before them, namely, "Who should govern India?" is not confused with other local issues or considerations.

All this brings us to the final question. What does this mean in terms of the final outcome in Lok Sabha Election 2014? Since the voters are disillusioned with an unethical coalition at the Centre which is headed by a man who is perceived to be weak, they seem to want a Prime Minister who is the very anti-thesis of Mr.Singh. For a variety of reasons ranging from bitter political battles over models of governance, models of leadership, models of development and models of inclusion to the public assessment of the persona of leaders who are willing and able to handle the top job, a substantial section of the voters appear to have zeroed in on Mr.Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat and the Bharatiya Janata Party's nominee for the office of Prime Minister, as their choice for prime ministership. They also see him as having all the qualities needed for the top job.

While Mr.Modi has contributed to the creation of this image of being a firm and decisive leader focused on development and governance, some credit must go to his detractors as well. By singling him out for attack ever since the BJP anointed him as the prime ministerial candidate on September 13, 2013, they have wlly-nilly made this a Modi or No-Modi election and for the moment, it appears it is working to Mr.Modi's advantage. Some other factors have also been working for him. For example, the fact that he was a tea seller in a railway station during his formative years has struck a chord with the poor and dispossessed. They feel that he is living the great Indian dream which offers equal opportunity to one and all and enables even the poorest of the poor to move up the ladder provided one has the discipline, positive energy and the gumption to overcome social and economic disabilities and dream big. Initially some members of the Congress Party mocked at his humble beginnings but clearly that seems to have boomeranged. The second factor that appears to be playing out in his favour is the fact that he belongs to a caste that is part of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). This fact has spread silently by way of word of mouth and has made it easier for a large section of the voters within this segment to rise above their caste considerations and relate to him.

Finally, a word about the BJP. Although Mr.Modi is the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, the voters' focus is not on the party. Most of those who hit the lotus button on their electronic voting machines say that their vote is for Modi and not the party. So much so that in many constituencies they say they neither know the BJP candidate nor do they care as to who it is. All they know is that they are voting Modi. Mr.Modi has sensed this and therefore his television appeal to voters says "hit the lotus button and be assured that that vote is coming directly to me".

There have been few occasions in the past when such a strong and charismatic personality has dominated the discourse in a parliamentary election. The only examples one can think of are the Lok Sabha elections held in 1971 and 1980. On both these occasions, it was Indira Gandhi, the leader of her faction of the Congress versus the rest and on both occasions she came out triumphant. What does Election 2014 hold for us? We must wait till May 16 to know the extent to which the electorate has backed Mr.Modi and whether India will get a "strong and decisive" government!

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