Why does a $50 check from a sympathizer in Boston to a political party - a new outfit fighting its first elections - remain uncashed? And how does it matter to parliamentary elections in a country of 1.2 billion people? For any non-Indian listening to the rhetoric and watching the process of the 2014 elections for a new government, a Chinese puzzle would be easier to crack.
A young French diplomat recently asked me if there is a possibility of a woman becoming the prime minister of India in 2014. My "no" was emphatic. How was I so sure? Anything could happen; this is India. I am a common woman, worried, as is everyone else in my country, about the price of onions and the rising cost of fuel and electricity. Onions? Is that the discourse for the 2014 elections? No, it is not. If you read the newspapers and watch television in India, the discourse changes every day. If it was a bomb blast at a political rally that killed and injured a hundred yesterday, it is a gentleman of yesteryear, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, today, and it could be the tear-jerking high cost of onions tomorrow.
It's a transition India that will be voting, and top leaders in the two major political parties do not know what the future holds for them. Neither do the psephologists so in fashion. And if one were to read the writing on the wall, real walls, not proverbial ones, they scream, "First Delhi, then Hindustan - that's what the Lion of India says!" The picture to go with such sloganeering, of course, is that of Narendra Modi. His party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), not satisfied with declaring him future prime minister of India, now proclaims that he is the Lion of India. And Modi believing that his "Hoonkar," or roar (yes, that's the word he uses in his public rallies to woo voters!) is going to get India to vote for him. He says he is first going to take Delhi - and then India. Such polemics only conjure up a picture of blood and gore, communal riots, mob attacks on civilians and bomb blasts, the latest in Modi's rally in the eastern state of Bihar on October 27, 2013, which tore five people to shreds and injured 90 others. The police have offered no information concerning who planted the bombs or why. At election time, no one is blaming Islamic fundamentalists. The discourse is not about the dead and injured, mind you. These are "collateral damage" in a fight for ruling a resurgent, vivacious young India.
At present, the Indian National Congress ruling party (INC, also called the Congress Party) has a muted response. Unable to get its act of governance together, for Congress, electioneering has come to mean just responding, not leading the charge. The ruling party has too many burning fires to douse, one on its doorstep is the state election in Delhi.
As in the USA, India too is carved into states and sees legislative assembly elections in nine of these states in 2013. Four states went to the hustings in February, and five states vote in new governments in early December. Unlike governors, the chief minister is the ruling deity in Indian states. The tiny hill state of Tripura voted for 50 Communist candidates in its House of 60. In neighbouring Meghalaya, the INC won 29 seats in a House of 60 while in yet another northeast state, Nagaland, it was a regional party, the Naga Peoples' Front that won 37 seats in a House of 59.
The biggest state - with 224 seats - that saw a new local government was the south Indian state of Karnataka, where the BJP had ruled for ten years. In February 2013, 122 seats were won by Congress (INC); the BJP retained only 40 of its seats. Congress saw that election as a great "people's revolution," a thirst for change and better governance, forgetting that people in India vote differently for assembly elections and the general nationwide election to elect the government for India.
The city of Delhi and its immediate surroundings make up the state of Delhi. In November, the state of Delhi, ruled by the Congress Party for the past 15 years and with a woman chief minister, will vote in a new local government, responsible for the safe housing of the national capital, its administrative machinery and the central government of India. Hence the opposition BJP's slogan, "First take Delhi, then India." It, however, has bigger problems at hand. Two other big states, at present ruled by the BJP, also going to the polls at the end of November are Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, heartland of the country, also plagued by left militancy. The fourth state poll will be in the northern state of Rajasthan, once a BJP stronghold, but now ruled by the Congress Party. The tiny northeastern state of Mizoram now has a Congress government in a 40-seat House.
All pre-election opinion polls are predicting that the BJP will retain Madhya Pradesh (150 seats in a House of 260) and Chhattisgarh (70 of 90 seats) and the ruling Congress will retain Mizoram. If one were to go by past experiences, if the two populous states vote back the BJP for state elections, they will vote for a different party for the national general elections. By the same logic, Karnataka will vote for the BJP in the general elections as it has brought in the Congress at the state level. If the BJP manages to wrest back Rajasthan in December, the state is likely to vote for Congress in the general elections.
For the Congress Party, the dilemma is how to steer the state elections and at the same time, not lose sight of the larger picture. Narendra Modi and his BJP think Delhi has once been a BJP stronghold and they will win the state election easily. So their slogan, "Delhi Chalo" - let's march to Delhi - once the bastion is conquered, India will be conquered. If life were only so simple. Past experiences say that if Delhi state is ruled by the BJP, the central government will not be BJP. One more thing the BJP has forgotten is the demographics. Delhi is the nation's capital. People gather here from all corners of the country, and the voter population is heterogeneous now, no longer the old Punjabi migrant from a partitioned India, traumatised and voting for a strongly pro-Hindu party.
If Delhi and India are young, there is no use fighting a battle of words over Vallabhbhai Patel, a politician of the 1940s, who was called the "iron man" of India, a sobriquet given again in the 1990s to BJP leader L K Advani. Patel's legacy was Congress' legacy of India's freedom struggle; he was Mahatma Gandhi's follower and Jawaharlal Nehru's colleague in the first independent and sovereign government of India. Even if Advani carried off the sobriquet, of what relevance is it today if Modi and the BJP claim Patel as their icon? Modi is a Gujrati, as were Patel and Gandhi. But India today is bigger than Gujarat, and even bomb blasts at his rally may not draw the popular vote to Modi's cause.
Modi talked of Patel at an official government platform he shared this week with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Singh's rebuttal: Patel belonged to my party, the Congress. To take Delhi, the BJP has to be more innovative than that. Delhi's woman chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, is ready to hand over the baton either to her son, Sandeep Dikshit or to another male leader, although publicly she insists she is game for another term. The BJP's chief ministerial candidate is a doctor, Harshvardhan, who began a Polio immunization campaign in 1978, as the state's then-health minister. Pulled out of a limbo 35 years on, it is a different Delhi he faces. Its' a Delhi with a broom for its symbol, and a new party, the Aam Admi Party (AAA), which promises to "sweep clean corruption from Indian politics and bureaucracy."
Whoever wins Delhi, will India get a woman prime minister? No way. Just as Delhi has no woman chief ministerial candidate on the horizon (unless the Congress party wins and lets Sheila continue), India does not have a woman prime minister on its radar.
If the BJP wins the national election, will the leader of the opposition now, Sushma Swaraj, become the natural choice for PM? No, it's Narendra Modi who will. If the Congress wins, it may be Manmohan Singhwho will get another term or another from the host of ambitious men waiting in the wings, led by the young Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. And if, by chance, Delhi is swept by the AAP, which says it has no foreign funding and its $50 contribution check is still waiting encashment, the man leading it, Arvind Kejriwal will be the chief minister. And if the national election brings in a coalition government, Nitish Kumar, the man who is at present taking on Modi and calling him a fascist, is likely to be the prime minister. So where is the woman leader in India? It wasn't the good French wine talking when I said no way.