India's parliamentary elections get underway tomorrow. The latestround of opinion polls, released by different Indian news channels in the first four days of March, indicate that the Bharatiya Janata Party will emerge as the single largest party through the voting. One can read the message loud and clear: the shadow of a polarisation along religious lines appears to have crept into the scenario.
Two events on March 4 have given a religio-political dimension to the electoral battle: first, an open declaration of support for the Congress by the Shahi Imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmed Bukhari, just three days after his meeting with Sonia Gandhi and, second, the airing of a sting operation by a web portal to the effect that the December 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was carried out allegedly at the behest of the Hindu right wing.
These events, coupled with the relentless attacks on the BJP and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi by Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee and Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati and other politicians across the ideological spectrum over the 2002 riots in Gujarat state, have once again brought the communalism versus secularism debate to the centre of the electoral discourse.
It is not the first time that Bukhari has backed the Congress ahead of elections. He had in the past also supported the Samajwadi Party led by Mulayam Singh Yadav and the BSP. Meanwhile, what Cobrapost has said through its sting operation is also nothing new. But Sonia Gandhi's meeting with Imam Bukhari just four days ago and the timing of the sting operation by Cobrapost have helped rekindle the secularism versus communalism debate in the last few days of a campaign that had so far been dominated by polemics on economic development, economic growth model and how inclusive such a model has been.
The BJP and its standard bearer Narendra Modi have since the beginning of the election campaign sought to keep the focus on the economy and development. Special emphasis has been placed on showing up the development of Gujarat under Modi's stewardship for nearly a decade and a half. The party has also highlighted a series of scams that have hit the Congress-led UPA government in a bid to avoid the discomfort zones of the communalism-secularism discussion.
It is precisely for this reason that the BJP had on March 4 made public what it called a “charge sheet” accusing Congress and the coalition led by it of ruining the country's economy and failing to fight inflation and corruption.
Congress, for its part, has been battling charges of corruption in view of a slew of scams and mismanaging the economy.
Whether or not the debate on secular and communal politics defines political discourse for long, the key question before India once again is how Muslims in India, who make up about 15 per cent of the country's 814 million electorate, will vote.
Sonia Gandhi's meeting with Bukhari, in the view of political observers, underscores the Congress' anxiety about the results of an election in which the SP and the BSP, Congress' traditional rivals for Muslim votes in India's politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, remain in form. The Congress is also disturbed about the impact of the fledgling Aap Aadmi Party headed by Arvind Kejriwal. It is particularly apprehensive after its defeat in the legislative elections in four states last year—Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi—amidst a perception that Muslim voters had started gravitating back towards the SP, BSP and AAP.
However, Bukhari's actual clout among Muslim voters remains debatable. There is no certainty that his support for Congress will have the effect of a large shift of their votes to the Congress.
Note: India's pollsters have a poor track record. In the last two general elections – 2004 and 2009 – the polls were dead wrong. In 2004, most polls had forecasted that the incumbent BJP government would return to power with an even greater majority. Opinion and exit polls ranged between 240 and 280 seats for the incumbent. As it turned out, the incumbent received 180 seats. Congress formed the government. In 2009, most surveys predicted a poor show by the incumbent Congress government. As it turned out, the opposition NDA alliance received 159 and the incumbent UPA 262 seats.