India’s general elections begin on Thursday, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking re-election in the world’s largest democracy in polls to be held in seven phases until May 19.
Here we outline the major political personalities in the fray.
The Indian prime minister is up for re-election and as of now the frontrunner to retain power.
But he is also arguably the most polarising – and powerful – political leader in India since the late Indira Gandhi.
Having led the BJP to a massive 283 seats on its own (well over 300 with allies) in the 2014 elections – the first time a single party won a majority on its own in 30 years – Modi, 68, has spent the past five years leaving his mark on the Indian body politic.
For his admirers and supporters, or bhakts – devotees – as they are known, he has been just what the doctor ordered.
A muscular approach towards dealing with Islamist terror emanating from Pakistan, an integrationist approach towards the conflict-hit state of Jammu and Kashmir, and providing a corruption-free administration are his primary calling cards for 2019.
Aided and abetted, of course, by Modi’s unambiguous expression of a robust nationalism that derives inspiration from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s emphasis on the country’s Indic/Hindu civilisational/cultural heritage.
On the economy, he is lauded by his supporters for striking that fine balance between growth-oriented policies aimed at “growing the pie” and the welfarist agenda no government in India can afford to ignore given that over 200 million rural and urban poor who call India home.
Modi, who comes from a very modest family background and has famously sold tea at railway stations while growing up in poverty in his native state of Gujarat, was the proverbial outsider to New Delhi’s corridors of power in 2014.
Though he had been chief minister of Gujarat for three terms and had his share of admirers, he was not considered a heavy-hitter in national politics.
He was not even counted among the top rung of BJP leaders until he was declared the party’s candidate for PM in 2013, after it had suffered two consecutive defeats in the general elections of 2004 and 2009.
Today, those days are long gone.
He launches his 2019 re-election bid not only on his record as the head of government for five years but also after having successfully taken complete control of the BJP organisation, which is now in the hands of his oldest political confidant Amit Shah as party president.
Together, they have more or less completely marginalised the academic, media, bureaucratic, cultural and civil society influencers who held sway over the public narrative under all earlier regimes including the Congress.
Modi is running a presidential-style campaign. The focus is firmly on himself. He is the common man from the boondocks who rose through the ranks thanks to his hard work.
A vivid contrast, goes the pitch, to an entitled scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, Rahul Gandhi, who “inherited the crown” of Congress Party president from his mother Sonia Gandhi.
The BJP campaign plays on Modi’s perceived incorruptibility, the sense that his intentions are honest even if some of his decisions, especially those on the economy, have not been on target and his nation-first approach.
Modi, clearly, has emerged as the prominent force in Indian politics.
It is precisely for that reason that his opponents have, in a sense, ganged up on him and worked out a network of state-level alliances in an effort to stop him and his allies from hitting the majority mark.
The 2019 election, however, remains Narendra Modi’s to lose.
The national election campaign against Prime Minister Modi is led by the Congress, India’s oldest, albeit much shrunken, political party.
At the head of it stands the 48-year-old, softly spoken judoka and once-upon-a-time reluctant politician, party president Rahul Gandhi.
Rahul, as he prefers to be addressed, is the inheritor of a formidable political legacy. His father Rajiv Gandhi, grandmother Indira Gandhi and great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru have all been prime minister.
But times have changed.
He is fighting an uphill battle to ensure that the Congress betters its measly tally of 44 seats in the 2014 election.
Simultaneously, he needs to coordinate his campaign with other opposition leaders in the hope of cobbling together a post-poll coalition to prevent Modi’s return to power if the BJP falls even marginally short.
Rahul is talking up the lack of jobs under the Modi Administration, inequitable growth that favours crony capitalists and an atmosphere of impunity which has normalised anti-minority, especially anti-Muslim sentiment.
Criticised in the past as too soft for the hurly-burly of Indian politics, Rahul has minced no words in criticising the personality cult around the prime minister.
But the truth is that educated in India and the US, Rahul has never really been a professional with a life story to tell. He was drafted into the Congress by his mother in the early years of the new millennium when he was just in his 30s.
However, his intervention on behalf of a gentler India, where the poorest are taken care of and minorities protected, have struck a chord.
He was first off-the-block to focus on the poor and his minimum income guarantee scheme that will cover the poorest 20 per cent of India’s nearly 1.3 billion people has been well received.
But in an aspirational India where hand-out socialism is out of date and over 400 million of India’s eligible voters are in the 18-28 age group, the jury is still out on what the electoral dividends for him will be. It may have also come a bit late in the day.
Rahul’s appeal to the youth looking for jobs, farmers, especially landless labourers and share croppers, and minority communities has undoubtedly also generated some support.
Given the shambolic condition of the Congress party organisation, where activists are missing on the ground, however, converting support for Rahul’s narrative into votes in a substantive way will be difficult, admit party insiders.
When it comes to hard numbers, the best-case scenario for Congress in most estimates including credible opinion polls is of winning between 80-100 seats with another 30-40 for its allies. That seems about right and may just be enough for Rahul to live to fight another day.
A conglomeration of powerful, regional satraps who head parties looking to maximise the seats they can pick up in their respective states of influence and known collectively as the Third Front has emerged as the crucial player in the 2019 election.
One of its leading lights is Mayawati, who goes by only one name.
The undisputed leader of a large section of the “Dalit” or scheduled caste community, to which she herself belongs, Mayawati, 63, is perhaps the most powerful leader in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), which accounts for as many as 80 MPs in a house of 543.
She was a schoolteacher in an impoverished Delhi suburb who was mentored for a leadership role by the late Kanshi Ram, founder of the party she now heads, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
It translates roughly as party of the (disempowered) majority.
She was three times the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, and even her opponents conceded that she was tough on crime in a state notorious for its pathetic law and order situation.
Over the years, however, she has been accused of massive corruption and a case relating to her accumulation of assets disproportionate to her known sources of income is ongoing.
Purely on electoral arithmetic and tabulating past vote-share of the major parties in Uttar Pradesh (including the BJP sweep of 2014), the Grand Alliance led by Mayawati is in pole position.
If the alliance partners can ensure a transfer of votes to each other, the BJP will be in big trouble and Modi may find himself losing at least 40 seats in Uttar Pradesh, which could be the kiss of death for his prime ministerial ambitions.
Into the bargain, Mayawati’s chances of taking a shot at becoming prime minister with support from other parties including the Congress if her alliance gets more than 50 seats will only improve.
Mamata Banerjee is the storm petrel of the anti-BJP, non-Congress opposition. As the chief minister of West Bengal, she rules the state with an iron grip from Kolkata, known as the cultural capital of India.
More crucially, it is a state that sends 42 MPs to parliament.
Banerjee is one of the most vociferous critics of Prime Minister Modi and a prime mover of the Third Front that seeks to dislodge him from power “at any cost” to “save democracy”.
And she is bringing all her experience in agitprop and ability to sustain a political campaign to bear against Modi.
A former front-ranking Congress leader from the state promoted over senior leaders by the late Rajiv Gandhi, she broke ranks with the Grand Old Party in the late 1990s.
Her spartan lifestyle – she still wears a modest, hand-spun sari and her trademark flip-flops – also endeared her to vast sections of the population.
After a decade of political struggle against the Communists as the head of the TMC, Banerjee finally won the state election in 2011 and was sworn in as chief minister.
She won again with an even bigger majority in the 2016 state polls.
Her party successfully resisted the Modi wave in the 2014 general election and won 34 seats out of 42 in West Bengal, making the TMC one of the largest opposition parties inParliament. But the BJP has since 2016 emerged as the principal opposition to her in the state as the Communist and Congress party organisations have withered, with their membership mopped up by the TMC.
However, corruption charges against party leaders relating to a ponzi scam in which millions lost money have taken the sheen off Banerjee’s spartan image.
The prime minister himself is addressing a series of election meetings in the state and is hammering home Banerjee’s allegedly “soft” approach to illegal immigration by Bangladeshi Muslims for “vote-bank politics”.
Banerjee, though, as she has shown more than once in her political career, is no pushover. She is hitting back hard, mocking the prime minister for his rhetorical flourishes that amount to nothing (jumlaas).
The loudest applause as Banerjee’s political rallies is when she accuses the BJP of playing community against community, Indian against Indian.
Relentless in her criticism of the Modi regime’s “economic mismanagement”, Banerjee is also aware that if she loses ground in the 2019 general election, the state elections due for 2021 will be very tough for her.
She is, in that sense, fighting for her political survival.
Asia News Network in New Delhi