SPEAKING FREELY Money men can't make Modi a sure bet
By Daniele Grassi
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Between April 7 and May 12, nearly 815 million Indians, about one sixth of the world population, will elect new members of the Lok Sabha (lower house) from over 15,000 candidates. For that occasion, approximately 930,000 polling stations will be opened in order to allow everyone to exercise their right to vote, even in the remotest corners of the country.
These elections will be the most expensive in the history of India. According to estimates by the Center for Media Studies, the campaign will absorb nearly US$% billion, three times more than 2009 elections and only $2 billion less than the US presidential
This fact, in itself, sheds some light on the ongoing electoral competition. The soaring costs are a reflection of the lavish election campaign of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief, Narendra Modi, frontrunner to lead India's next government. His candidacy is strongly supported by the Indian economic establishment, which has already allocated hundreds of millions of rupees to the project, and tried to influence the attitude of the media toward the BJP leader.
Since the announcement of his candidacy, in fact, a number of media outlets (many of which are controlled by the economic lobbies) have launched a campaign aimed at highlighting the successes achieved by Modi during his years at the helm of the state of Gujarat, and to enhance his credentials as a national leader.
The data on the economic development of Gujarat do indeed appear to be hard facts. The Economist called it the "Indian Guangdong", in reference to one of the richest provinces of China. Under Modi's government, Gujarat 's gross domestic product has grown at an average rate of about 10%, consistently above the national level. Representing only 5% of India's population, the State accounts for about 16% of its manufacturing output and a quarter of its total exports.
These results have been achieved through a significant simplification of the red tape, and the quite obsessive attention given by Modi to each single investor, an attitude that has also earned him the support of the international economic community. In November, Goldman Sachs raised India's rating from "underweight" to "market weight" in view of Modi's possible success in the next election.
At the moment, however, the leader of the BJP has not yet clearly defined its economic agenda. This could be a deliberate choice intended to keep his hands free, allowing him to oppose the populism of the other political forces. Or the lack of a detailed strategy could be an attempt to hold together competing currents within the party, a liberal one and another one which is more markedly nationalist even in the economic field.
Therefore, the support of the Indian elite could be related to its fears of a possible victory by the Congress or the so-called Third Front - a coalition of regional parties and various leftist groups - rather than to blind trust in Modi.
The last years of the government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress party have been marked by numerous corruption scandals and a long series of failed opportunities, with the GDP growth rate more than halved, from 10% for 2010 to the current 4.9%. Similarly, the brief period in power of the Aam Aadmi Party in New Delhi was marked by a highly populist economic policy and an unwillingness to undertake government responsibilities. Finally, the heterogeneity of the Third Front gives little hope of it articulating a clear and coherent economic agenda.
But Modi has his problems, too. He is distrusted by many due to a style of government considered excessively authoritarian and centralist, and little inclined to the art of compromise and mediation. And his political career will always be tainted by the violence that occurred in 2002 in "his" state, Gujarat, when a terrorist attack on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya triggered a strong reaction by the local population against the Muslim community, with more than 1,000 victims.
In 2012, a special committee appointed by the Supreme Court of India cleared Modi (but not some of his closest collaborators) from the accusation that he had somehow endorsed the violence perpetrated by Hindu nationalists. Recently, the international community has put aside any concerns of a ethical nature - in 2005 the US had denied him an entry visa - establishing direct links with the possible future leader of India.
There is little doubt that the BJP will come out of the polls as the first national party - according to the surveys, it might even surpass the 182 seats it won in 1998. But it remains to be seen whether it will be able to put together a coalition government with the 273 seats needed to control the Lok Sabha. Even in this case, a prime minister Modi would find his ability to govern diminished by blackmail from other coalition parties. And it is still possible that a Third Front leader can form a coalition with the Congress party.
It's now up to voters to decide whether to accommodate Modi at the height of his power, or express an unclear mandate. The latter choice would disappoint markets, which want to see an executive with the strength to adopt the structural reforms that India needs, and provide foreign investors with a guarantee of stability. Such an outcome could compromise, at least in the short term, India's chances to get back on track.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.