Facing Off

Are there benefits to pitting prime ministerial candidates against each other?

01 April 2014
Data from recent Indian elections suggest that parties’ prime ministerial choices have only a modest impact on how they fare at the ballot box.

IN THE LAST LOK SABHA ELECTIONS, 714 million Indians were eligible to vote, and 8,070 candidates stood for office. In principle, any one of those candidates, if elected, could have become prime minister. In the five years since, the number of eligible voters has increased by nearly a hundred million—roughly the entire population of Mexico. Given the overwhelming complexity of such a massive exercise, commentators naturally use certain filters to distil their analysis. Among the most popular is the direct comparison of individual leaders, which frames elections as a face-off between the declared or likely prime ministerial candidates of the major political parties.

The intensity of such “presidentialising” discourse has waxed and waned, depending on the idiosyncrasies of specific parliamentary elections. For example, in 2009, both the Congress and the BJP put forward prime ministerial candidates who were greying veterans on their last laps. This made for a relatively low-wattage contest. While Manmohan Singh was repeatedly pilloried for his uninspiring campaign presence, Lal Krishna Advani, nearly two decades removed from his peak as the polarising face of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, was seen as being increasingly out of touch with what voters wanted.

This year’s contest features two lightning rods, and commentators are pitting them against each other with renewed vigour. Both prime ministerial hopefuls are seen to have serious and divergent flaws: Rahul Gandhi invites ridicule as the face of dynastic incompetence, while Narendra Modi invokes fear as the symbol of Hindu majoritarian intolerance. Last month, an NDTV poll of over 200,000 respondents found that the preeminent concern about Gandhi becoming the next prime minister was continued corruption; with Modi, it was increased Hindu–Muslim tensions. Analysts argue that the highly charged “Gandhi or Modi?” question—a central debate on dinnertime news shows—has polarised voters. The historian Ramachandra Guha even called 2014 “the first individual-driven election” since the heyday of Indira Gandhi.

TARIQ THACHIL is an assistant professor of political science at Yale University, USA. His book Elite Parties, Poor Voters: How Social Services Win Votes in India, will be published by Cambridge University Press later this year.

Keywords: election campaigns political parties Narendra Modi prime minister Rahul Gandhi 2014 Lok Sabha elections opinion polls