In April-May 2019, India, the world’s largest democracy, will experience its 17th national elections, thus midway through the pre-election race it would be interesting to overview the ongoing competition of the major parties and expectations of the electorate. Given that India, with more than 815 million people eligible to vote, represents a complex diversity of religious, linguistic, and caste communities, it would be extremely difficult to predict the outcomes of the elections.
Undoubtedly, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be among the favorites of the election this time as well. As a result of the previous 2014 elections, the BJP achieved a historical single-party majority at the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the Indian parliament), which happened for the first time since the one-party dominant system led by the Indian Congress Party during 1952-1989 [Sridharan, 2014]. Yet for the Congress Party, the 2014 elections were among the worst in history, with only 44 seats won, whereas for the BJP, in case of repeating the 2014 success, there is a chance to turn the country into a majoritarian democracy, with the single party gaining hegemonic control over all state institutions [Mukhopadhyay, 2018]. It is also worth mentioning that there was a record turnout at the past elections, with roughly 550 million citizens casting a vote, which accounts for 66.4% of eligible voters, compared to 58% registered during the two previous elections [Vaishnav, 2018a]. The heightened interest to the previous elections were due to the popularity of Modi, who remains one of the most popular politicians in India. He managed to inspire the nation with a slogan “achhe din” (good times) for the economy and by making several ambitious promises. Moreover, the negative sentiment against the Congress-led coalition because of corruption and the poor level of governance also played into the hands of the BJP that called on the Indian people to believe in good times with the new government led by Modi.
However, the upcoming election race shows that it will be difficult for the BJP to generate a similar interest among the public. Although Modi’s government did follow some of his campaign promises, such as starting pro-poor economic schemes and innovative programs as Smart India and Clean India, the demonetization of high-value currency notes in November 2016 and the introduction of the Goods and Service Tax (GST) in July 2017 were harshly criticized by the public. The demonetization of five hundred and one thousand rupee notes, which comprised 86% of India’s currency in circulation, was driven by the idea of nullifying black money savings and the desire to boost transparency of economy, whereas the implementation of the GST reified the motto of “one country, one tax, one market”. Even though these economic changes seem very important in the long-term perspective, in the medium term they have damaged the country’s small and medium enterprises. Furthermore, Modi’s campaign promised to stimulate job creation and overhaul the economic situation, but, despite Modi’s attempts to reenergize the Indian economy, dissatisfaction with the existing economic conditions is still an issue. Particularly, it is seen among rural residents, especially farmers, who comprise almost half of the labor force in India. They organized a series of protests throughout the country demanding government aid [Kumar, 2018]. Besides, Modi’s 2014 election campaign promise to achieve total employment was implemented partly since nonfarm jobs increased, while farming jobs experienced a decline, also due to poor climate conditions and droughts [Vaishnav, 2018a]. Thus, during the forthcoming elections, less enthusiasm is expected among rural voters with respect to the incumbent prime minister and his government. In addition, the new middle class, showing a disaffection with how their needs are addressed, creates another concern for the BJP’s election campaign. Consequently, despite an increasing economic growth of India that remains one of the highest among the emerging economies, the above-mentioned economic anxieties cause a negative impact on the BJP’s election strategy.
Meanwhile, the BJP represents Hindu nationalism with the key target to attract Hindus, who constitute 80% of the Indian population. Importantly, during the 2014 elections, among 282 BJP members elected to the parliament, there was no single Muslim, hence the party is often criticized as an anti-minority party in nature [Rachman, 2018]. The BJP is not only a political party as its ideological guiding force comes from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing, Hindu nationalist organization, which in its pre-1947 history was known not only for demanding India’s independence but also for promoting the creation of “Hindustan,” a land intended exclusively for Hindus. At present, the RSS is the largest nongovernmental organization that serves as a mentor to BJP cadres [Vaishnav, 2018b].
In foreign policy, the BJP government has shown a relative success, albeit foreign policy does not always figure as a key issue during elections. Internationally, Modi’s foreign policy has been characterized by exceptional dynamism and is driven by his personal ambition. The easing of the “non-alignment” past and the development of multilateral relations based on the strategic geo-economic vision for India has been one of the main directions of Modi’s tenure. He encourages the integration of domestic economic interests with foreign affairs, such as an increase in foreign direct investment and the promotion of “Make in India” and “Digital India” campaigns worldwide.
Thus, the BJP traditionally promotes pro-business policies, relying on social welfare, foreign policy and national security based on the Hindutva (Hindu-ness) principles, which is seen as a basis for true national security and the global recognition of India. As of mid-2018, the BJP ruled in 20 of India’s 29 states. To compare, the Congress Party ran only three states [Vaishnav, 2018c]. However, the political background has undergone some changes, especially during the state elections held in December 2018. They resulted in the decline of the BJP’s electoral seats: in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh the BJP conceded the majority to the Congress Party, while in Madhya Pradesh the BJP only gained half of its former seats [Kumar, 2018]. Similarly, in November 2018, the BJP won only three of 13 parliamentary by-polls, and five of 22 state legislature elections [Mukhopadhyay, 2018]. The outcomes of these key state elections have testified to the escalating contest between the BJP and the Congress Party. However, it is still early to forecast that India will have a new prime minister, even though the BJP electoral coalition demonstrates signs of strain.
Meantime, the Congress Party coalition, led by Rahul Gandhi, is the main competitor of the BJP for an electoral victory. Even though the 2014 elections witnessed a low interest in the Congress Party, this time it will be a strong challenger. Rahul Gandhi, who assumed the presidency in the Congress Party in 2017, appears to be more focused and consistent, and, while during the 2014 elections the electorate believed in the future good times inspired by Modi, now they already see to what extent his promises have been implemented, which gives Gandhi more chances to win.
Nevertheless, the BJP’s and Modi’s positions still remain the strongest in the country, and he has every chance to extend his tenure. Internationally, Modi’s victory would further strengthen him as a regional leader with global ambitions, as well as reinforce India’s standing in the world stage. So, the time will show whether an ample political will of Modi’s government will overcome the highly complex political environment and win the support of the electoral majority or the Congress dynasty, which had ruled India for most of the post-independence era, with its heir Rahul Gandhi, will experience a resurrection.
Kumar, Nikhil (2018). India’s Modi is entering an election year looking weaker than ever. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2018/12/19/asia/india-election-2019-modi-weak-intl/index.html. Accessed on 10.01.2019.
Mukhopadhyay, Nilanjan (2018). Why the 2019 election may be the most crucial in India’s history. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2019-election-crucial-india-history-181120160323155.html. Accessed on 10.01.2019.
Rachman, Gideon (2018). How India’s Narendra Modi will shape the world. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/42912706-574f-11e8-bdb7-f6677d2e1ce8. Accessed on 10.01.2019.
Sridharan, Eswaran (2014). Behind Modi’s Victory. Journal of Democracy, Volume 25, Number 4, October 2014, pp. 20-33.
Vaishnav, Milan (2018a). From Cakewalk to Contest: India’s 2019 General Election. Retrieved from https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/04/16/from-cakewalk-to-contest-india-s-2019-general-election-pub-76084. Accessed on 10.01.2019
Vaishnav, Milan (2018b). What is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)? What does it stand for, in terms of ideas? Retrieved from https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/10/11/what-is-secret-to-success-of-india-s-bharatiya-janata-party-bjp-pub-77477. Accessed on 10.01.2019.
Vaishnav, Milan (2018c). India’s Congress Party Rises from the Dead. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/12/14/in-india-the-congress-party-isnt-dead-yet/. Accessed on 10.01.2019.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Dr. Albina Muratbekova is a research fellow at the Eurasian Research Institute of Akhmet Yassawi Kazakh Turkish International University. Albina holds a PhD degree in Oriental Studies from Al Farabi Kazakh National University. During her studies, Albina received fellowships from institutions in China, India, the USA, the UK, Germany, and Switzerland. Her primary research interests cover Central, East, and South Asian affairs; intraregional and interregional cooperation of Central Asian states; China-India relations; and Central Asian politics.