India Elections – democracy at work! April 2019

Elections to the lower house (Lok Sabha) of the Indian Parliament is now well under way. It started April 11 and will end May 19, with the results to be announced on May 23.

This exercise in democracy, taking place every five years, is truly impressive. The sheer numbers – more than 900 million eligible voters, and more than 85 million young people with the right to vote for the first time – are mindboggling.  The voter turnout is exceptionally high; historically between 65% and 70%. One interesting feature is that turnout of the poor is at the same rate, if not higher, as the middle income and the well-to-do segments of the population.

The last Lok Sabha elections in 2014 turned out to be a landslide victory for BJP and their PM candidate Narendra Modi. Mr Modi managed to attract voters far beyond the BJP traditional voting base. He found resonance with the aspirations of people for development, growth, jobs, anti-corruption and modernization. He was also helped by the scandals and alleged decision-making paralysis of the last years of the UPA government.

It is interesting to note that the Indian election system where one person is elected from each constituency (the winner takes it all) strongly favours large parties (possibly for good reasons in India). In the last elections, BJP received just over 30% of all votes and 269 seats in the Lok Sabha (51.5%), while Congress received 18% of the votes and bagged only 44 seats (8.65%). This shows that pre-election alliances are vital to the outcome. Not much however have changed in the approach to alliances on either side. BJP keeps its NDA (National Democratic Alliance) and Congress UPA (United Progressive Alliance). The major change this year from 2014 is the SP and BSP alliance in Uttar Pradesh, which might create problems for the BJP in this large and important state.

Has Modi bridged the BJP divide?

The BJP has traditionally been split between one group giving attention to modern, urban issues like growth and economic reforms and another group of more traditional Hindu nationalists, seeking to safeguard the ideology of the Hindu population. The former BJP Prime Minister Atal Vajpayee (1998-2004) was a good example of a member of the more modern, urban group, who succeeded in keeping the fundamentalist Hindu nationalists at bay.

Modi has so far been able to combine both sides of the BJP divide with his background in the strong Hindu nationalistic group RSS and at the same time emphasizing job creation, pointing to his successful track record from his long period as Chief Minister of Gujarat. However, the impression he has given during his term as Prime Minister is that he has been more successful in courting the Hindu nationalistic front than creating growth and jobs. Although Modi himself has been careful not to go overboard on the Hindu nationalistic rhetoric, he has not taken any action to prevent others who go that way. This has given legitimacy to Hindu hardliners.

Does the opposition pose a challenge?

The opposition has focused on the inability of Modi to live up to his election promises on job creation and economic growth and on what they see as the serious problem of growing communal disparities.

At the same time, the Congress Party, which has always been secular, has been extra careful not to scare away the Hindu vote, after all they make up 80% of the population. As an effect, it is likely that the situation for minorities, especially the Muslims, consisting of about 200 million people, will become more neglected in the political debate and in the Indian reality.

The opposition wants to make the most of the problems created by the demonetization in 2016, (where overnight a number of low denomination rupee bills were made useless, creating huge problems for millions) and of the poor implementation of the GST reform, which have created administrative problems including corruption risks, especially for the SMEs.

While BJP undoubtedly has a very strong leadership, the same cannot be said for the Congress Party. In spite of a long stretch of embarrassing election defeats the Gandhi family is cemented at the top of the party. The new party president, Rahul Gandhi, has been groomed for this role for several decades, but he has not shown to be a natural leader in spite of his family name. The Party leadership is seen as very weak, and no one is allowed to in any way overshadow the new leader. So, the party that until recently could display a long list of very competent people risks slowly moving into a morass of mediocracy. Despite this, the party has done well in a few recent State elections, beating BJP, albeit with a small margin. This has given Congress a second wind in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections.

Besides the two large national parties, there is always a possibility of a third front being established, i.e., a coalition of strong parties mainly operating on the state level. Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and more states have locally based parties that could become a strong force in Delhi if they united in Parliament. The downside with this solution is that these third front governments are likely to be short lived since they have no common political platform other than opposition to the national parties and their wish to form a government.

What are the main issues that will determine the elections?

The two groups all parties try to court are the poor and the young. Both are large groups and could very well determine the outcome of the elections. Rural poverty and the farmers’ economic situation are of course related. A large number of farmers have not seen any improvement in income over the last five years and they question if Modi will fulfil his 2014 election promise to double their income by 2022. Prices have grown slowly and tend to fall when crop size increases. The promised interventions to safeguard farm income have not materialized. The opposition counter with promises of income guarantees and debt relief for farmers. However, proposals from all parties have not indicated the structural reforms needed to sustainably change the lives of the rural poor.

The youth, the other significant group in a country where half its population is under 25 years of age, have their own demands on the government. They look especially at how well the Modi government has lived up to its election promises on new jobs and economic growth. The challenge for India is huge, with a million new entrants in the labour market each month.  Indian growth rates have been reasonably good, but the growth has largely been jobless. BJP’s message has been that they need more time and that the issues will be taken care of in the next five-year mandate period. No doubt there is a huge discontentment with the slow progress in job creation, especially among the young people who had put trust in the promise of the Modi government five year ago. Nonetheless, they might still vote for Modi perhaps mainly because they do not see a viable leadership alternative.

What would be the likely outcome?

Before we consider what the different opinion polls say, it is prudent to remember that Indian elections are terribly difficult to predict. In 2004 practically everyone, including the leadership of both Congress and BJP, were taken by surprise over the election win of the Congress Party and their alliance parties. In 2009, very few foresaw the relatively large victory of the Congress Party and in 2014 although a BJP victory was expected, the magnitude of the win was a big surprise to most analysts.

So, with this in mind, what would be the likely outcome of these elections?

All the opinion polls conducted since the spring of 2014 up till this month indicate that the BJP-led coalition will be by far the largest force in Parliament. The main question is if it will get its own majority or if the Congress-alliance UPA together with all other parties in Lok Sabha would have more seats than NDA. Most projections indicate that NDA will be in majority, especially after the recent terror attack in Kashmir and the Indian retaliation. A situation could however arise where the result would be a hung parliament. BJP must in that case find coalition partners outside NDA in order to continue in power. It is likely they will, but if they don’t the field is open for Congress or others to try.

By Lars-Olof Lindgre (Amb.Retd.) SIBC Senior Executive Advisor, Former Special Advisor to the President and CEO of Saab India