There are many state-level issues, of course. The electoral outcome will influence how India copes with the economic slowdown, affect the future of the project of building a pluralist-secular society, and impact the way class and caste coalitions are shaped. But these issues haven't entered the arena as the axes around which electoral choices will be made.
This is a major departure from, say, 2004, which was a referendum against the Bharatiya Janata Party's divisive communal sectarianism -- which found its most virulent expression in the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002, and its misguided celebration of an India it wrongly claimed to be 'shining'. The BJP lost the plebiscite in 23 of 28 states.
Major issues were at stake even in the 1991, 1996 and 1998 elections too, like the decline of the Congress -- which then seemed rapid and irreversible, the ability of the then rising regional parties to form a coalition at the Centre, and the viability of the National Democratic Alliance under BJP domination.
Second, this is India's first election where a prime minister who has completed his full term is not leading his party's campaign. Dr Manmohan Singh was luckier than Rajiv Gandhi in completing his term despite the Congress's failure to win a majority -- unlike in 1984, when it bagged over 400 seats. But Dr Singh isn't leading his party from the front.
Dr Singh isn't even a Lok Sabha candidate -- although there are many 'safe' constituencies from where he could contest. A popular mandate would be in keeping with the spirit of democracy. If the Congress forms the next government, he'll be the first prime minister to be re-elected as a Rajya Sabha MP. That will be far worse than H D Deve Gowda's brief prime ministerial tenure as a Rajya Sabha MP. To top it all, Dr Singh is supposed to represent Assam -- a state he's barely acquainted with -- in the Council of States.
Third, the number of crorepati candidates has reached astounding levels -- no fewer than 193 among the 1,418 candidates in the election's first phase. The proportion of candidates with more than Rs 1 crore in assets has reached 14 percent of the total, compared to nine in 2004, according to National Election Watch, a civil society group. There are two candidates with assets exceeding an astounding Rs 500 crores each. Of Mumbai's 36 contestants, all but two are crorepatis. In Andhra Pradesh, every fifth candidate is a crorepati!
Sadly, crorepatis are especially numerous in the poorest parts of Maharashtra (Vidarbha, notorious for farmers' suicide), Andhra and Orissa. This speaks of a gap between procedural democracy and substantive democracy, which involves social and economic equality. This, like growing criminalisation of politics -- 16 percent of candidates have criminal records -- doesn't bode well for participatory democracy. Criminalised plutocracies are toxic to it.
Finally, there's a breakdown of established party alliances and unprecedented promiscuity. Parties from different camps are wooing one another irrespective of ideological bent or political affiliation. The National Democratic Alliance has been reduced to a one-third of its original strength. The BJP is even wooing J Jayalalithaa, who's in the Third Front. She has rebuffed the BJP, but kept her post-poll options open.
The United Progressive Alliance too has suffered erosion. Some UPA parties are openly seeking external allies. No less important is the emergence of an embryonic Fourth Front -- between the Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal and Lok Janashakti Party -- all of whom support the UPA.
Apart from boundless opportunism and lack of morality, this speaks of a growing de-crystallisation of the party system. Clear lines of demarcation between parties reflect differences between their social bases, political identities and programmes and are a sign of a mature, healthy democracy. The blurring of differences is a setback. The party political system must recover and re-crystallise -- not on the basis of individual entrepreneurs and their highly personalised style of politics, but through a building of well-defined relationships with social and regional bases.
One shouldn't bemoan the relative decline of so-called national parties and the steady rise in the vote-share of state-level parties from 11 percent in 1984 to 36 percent in 2004. Political differentiation, even fragmentation, can be empowering if it reflects grassroots-level changes and self-assertion of underprivileged strata.
In a huge, highly diverse and unevenly developed country like India, there are bound to be many regional sub-regional parties and organisations representing different social groups, classes, causes, issues, occupational groups, even gender identities. There are hardly any jatis or castes -- as different from varnas -- barring Brahmins, which have a relatively homogenous pan-Indian identity. Dalits, artisans and traders might belong to one varna (or none), but their jati-caste definition is always local, as is their status in society and ritual hierarchy.
Similarly, our inter-state differences in culture, levels of economic development and political traditions are so huge that it's futile to yearn for a political system dominated by one, two or three 'national' parties. Such parties typically either have an 'umbrella' character (Congress), or are deeply conservative, like the now-extinct Swatantra Party, composed of former maharajas and industrial magnates, or the BJP, which combines Hindu nationalism with an elitist social-political agenda and a strong upper-caste bias.
In some ways, smaller parties can provide a good counterpoint and counterweight to what has been called the centralised and unified conception of nationalism that the Congress advocates and the BJP follows. There exist two other forces in Indian politics, the Left parties, and low-caste-based formations like the Bahujan Samaj Party. This has led some analysts to theorise the rationale of a Third Front, comprised of these three currents, which can offer a coherent alternative to the two 'national' coalitions.
The Third Front was born last July when the Left withdraw support to the UPA. It has grown in recent weeks and is still evolving. It can provide a useful counter to the deplorably communal NDA and a Left-of-Centre alternative to the UPA. But it may be wrong to see the present combination -- four Left parties and a clutch of regional or linguistic-identity parties, with the BSP hovering around them as a cohesive force which can make a convincing bid for power.
Even if the Congress and the BJP end up winning less than half of Lok Sabha seats, the Third Front wins 120 to 130 seats, and the BSP joins it in a grand alliance, it's not inevitable that the Front will come to power and hold it for a length of time.
No ideological cement binds the Front's parties. Their twin planks of 'secularism' (opposition to the BJP-NDA), and opposition to the Congress on economic and foreign policy, aren't strong or convincing. The Left alone has demonstrated a consistent commitment to secularism by identifying Hindutva as the principal danger. All other front constituents have bestowed respectability on the BJP, or at minimum, allowed it to overcome the 'untouchability factor' and political isolation.
The NDA couldn't have retained power beyond a few weeks in 1998 had the Telugu Desam Party not extended outside support to it in exchange for the Speaker's position and countless concessions to Andhra Pradesh. Jayalalithaa justified the Babri demolition, and also endorsed the Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom. On the Ram Setu project too, she adopted a thoroughly pro-Hindutva stand. And she sanctified Narendra Modi with a 48-course Pongal meal last year.
The Left parties have a well-defined, consistent worldview, from which follow their positions on a range of issues, from international and national politics to caste oppression and affirmative action. Most Third Front constituents have no clear orientation. On economic policy, they aren't sharply demarcated from free-market neoliberalism. As ruling parties in the states, they have rarely shown a progressive streak. They often have very little interest in foreign or security policy and go along with whatever is acceptable to their bigger partners.
True, the Left can give them some direction, but the primary motivation for change must come from them. This is where they appear staid. In the late 1980s and 1990s, many non-Congress non-BJP parties represented rising social forces like Dalits and OBCs. Today, that momentum seems to have run out. Unless these parties renew their political capital by building links with grassroots movements and civil society organisations, their identities will remain fuzzy.
That apart, the Red Lines they can't cross haven't vanished. Many of them cannot ally with one another despite not being affiliated to the Congress or BJP. There are strong antagonisms between the SP and BSP, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All, India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Trinamool Congress and the Left, the RJD and the JD-U. This raises a serious question about the longevity of the front even if it forms a government with external support.