21 May 2019

A primer on Indian general elections

As the world’s largest democracy completes voting to elect its next government, it remains uncertain whether nationalist sentiments promulgated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party will help it win another term in office.

By Avantika Deb

With 8,000 electoral candidates contesting 543 seats in the parliament’s Lok Sabha (Lower House), and 900 million eligible voters, the 2019 Indian elections, which were held in seven phases from 11 April to 19 May, represent the biggest democratic elections in the world. With results expected to be released on 23 May, the polls are a closely contested race between Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the candidate for the ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) (comprising 42 centre-right political parties), and Rahul Gandhi, president of the opposition left-wing Indian National Congress (INC) party that heads the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which is comprised of 36 centre-left parties).

Modi first came to power in 2014 on promises of improving economic growth, lowering unemployment and rooting out corruption, but has faced strong criticism for failing to uphold his pledges. India’s annual GDP growth rate fell from 8.1 percent in 2015 to 7.1 percent in 2016 and hovered at the same level for 2018 following a demonetisation scheme in November 2016 (which involved an overhaul of all high-value currencies to weed out illegal money) and the implementation of a goods and services tax (GST) in July 2017. However, demonetisation failed to factor in black money invested in offshore accounts and slowed down economic activity, especially among small and medium enterprises who thrive on cash-based transactions, while the GST increased costs for manufacturers. Nationwide unemployment levels hit a 45-year high at 6.1 percent in 2017, while farmer suicides due to mounting agricultural loans increased, especially in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the country’s most populous state and the BJP’s traditional stronghold, as well as in pro-BJP Maharashtra, Bihar and Tamil Nadu states.

In recent months, public opinion turned favourable towards Modi after India’s airstrikes on suspected terror camps in Pakistan’s Balakot on 26 February 2019. The airstrikes followed a deadly suicide attack by Pakistan-based militants on Indian police in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir, which whipped up nationalistic fervour. Modi’s public approval rating increased from 39.1 percent in February to 63.1 in March, according to a poll by the National Trust Survey. Modi’s supporters have been campaigning as the "watchmen" who are capable of protecting India from further terror attacks. Although it is likely that the crisis with Pakistan played a role in the elections, its extent remains to be seen.

The INC, on the other hand, witnessed some considerable gains in the lead up to the polls, managing to wrest from the BJP the populous states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh in December 2018 state elections, with promises to provide agricultural loan waivers for farmers and increase rural employment by March 2020. The INC’s promises of improving the rights of religious minorities and their access to higher education and financial aid also garnered the UPA several political allies from Karnataka, Puducherry, Punjab and Mizoram ahead of the general elections, as these states have significant populations of Muslims, Christians and Buddhists. However, INC’s political campaign suffered from frequent event cancellations caused by the failure to acquire permission to hold political rallies in BJP-controlled territories. Gandhi is also considered a less experienced politician than Modi, having entered politics only in 2004, when Modi was already serving as Chief Minister of Gujarat. Furthermore, it remains to be seen if the INC’s vision to improve education and rural funding can also appeal to Hindus, who comprise 80 percent of the population, and are a key to winning the elections.

While the BJP remains the largest political party in India, neither it nor the INC have the numbers to form a majority government on their own, and will certainly depend on their allies. The winning coalition will need at least 272 seats out of 543 to form a majority government. While exit polls on 19 May indicated a BJP win, polls in India are typically unreliable as they are conducted by pro-government local research firms. If neither coalition attains an absolute majority, the winner may seek to align themselves with a third coalition, the Grand Alliance, comprising 12 regional centre-left political parties from various states, including UP, West Bengal, Haryana, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. However, maintaining cohesion in such a coalition government would be a challenge as the Grand Alliance primarily seeks greater employment and higher education opportunities for the society’s indigenous and other minority communities, as opposed to the various religious groups targeted by the BJP and INC.

Regardless of who will rule India next, the new government will certainly face the critical challenge of increasing employment, reviving economic growth, implementing new national security policies to tackle cross-border terrorism and tackling high-level corruption to ensure long-term political stability.

Avantika Deb is an India-based political and security risk analyst covering East Asia and Oceania.