Elections 2009: What’s Different from 2004?

Even as Obama takes oath to become the 44th president of the US, India is gearing up for its own election season. Sometime in April-May, hundreds of millions will vote in the general elections for the 15th Lok Sabha. It would have been hard to imagine five years ago that the Congress would have been able to stay in power with a cobbled coalition for the full term, but they did — even as they switched partners from the Left to the Samajwadi Party towards the end. So, as we look ahead to the elections this year, what has changed since 2004? Here are some of my thoughts:

  • 2009 will probably see a more fragmented verdict than 2004, making the task of government formation harder. In 2004, the Congress got 150 seats, the BJP 130, the Left 60, and about 200 went to various other parties. In 2009, I think the Congress-BJP combo will probably again find it difficult tocross the 300 mark. One big factor is the rise of the Bahujan Samajwadi Party in central India. For the Congress to come back to power, they will need to at least get 150 seats and then work on putting together a coalition. I think the bar for the BJP is much higher — it needs to win 200 seats on its own. Like last time, pre-poll alliances will make a difference.
  • There is a distinct possibility this time of a non-Congress, non-BJP government at the centre, with Mayawati hoping to do a Deve Gowda. If the BSP wins 60-80 seats, she will get support from the Left, and then it can all be up for grabs to get to the 270-mark.
  • The economy is on a down trend, as against the uptrend of 2004. The last year has posed many challenges, and the present government has not handled them well.
  • There is a heightened civic consciousness among citizens, which has grown in the past couple years. I think we will see higher voting percentages this time around. It is not clear who will benefit from this. This engagement is especially higher among the Youth.
  • Getting voters out on the big day will matter since one can expect some smaller parties and dissidents to also contest and split the vote, thus reducing victory margins and putting more seats in play.
  • Both the national parties have a Prnce-in-waiting (Rahul Gandhi for the Congress, and Narendra Modi for the BJP). If either of the Congress or BJP comes to power, expect a mid-term power transfer.
  • On the tech front, I think mobile marketing will play an important role, given that 300+ million Indian voters have a mobile in their hands.
  • Finally, there are the “Learnings of Obama” — I am sure all parties have studied what Obama did in the past 2 years in the US. But one has to be careful innot overplaying the Obama card. India’s election process is different. So, one has to also know what will not work in India.

I think the Congress (as Incumbent) will benefit from playing the same game, while the BJP needs to focus on “Disruptive Innovations” as the Challenger. All in all, it will be a fascinating 4 months – with the elections, and the negotiations to form a government.

What do you think will happen in the elections? If you were strategising for any of the political parties, what would you do?