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India Enters a New Political Era

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Picture courtesy: Narendra Modi/ flickr

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi scored a surprisingly emphatic win in the national election.

The elections concluded last week after seven rounds of voting which took six weeks and mobilised more than 600 million voters. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) increased both its seat and vote share to win a resounding majority, while the main opposition Congress Party could make only paltry gains in its seat share while its vote share remained stagnant.

A new era

The BJP’s stellar electoral performance consolidates its position as India’s dominant political party and indicates the dawn of a new political era.

India’s political history can be divided into distinct periods.

The first period, from 1947 to 1967 was an era of Congress Party primacy during which the party attracted votes from a broad cross-section of society, while opposition parties remained small and disorganised. In the second period from 1967 to 1990, the Congress Party remained dominant but faced challenges from new regional parties. The third period from 1990 to 2014 was one of coalition governments made up of regional and national parties, including the Congress and the BJP, whose political support began to rise in the 1980s.

The electoral majority won by the BJP in 2014 seemed to herald the beginning of a new era but much depended on whether the BJP could consolidate its appeal while in government. The 2019 election shows that 2014 can indeed now be thought of as a ‘realigning’ election.

The BJP’s electoral consolidation

A BJP victory in the 2019 election was predicted by India’s pollsters. But the scale of its win was surprising because the BJP’s governance record has been underwhelming. Despite some improvements in abstract indicators like the ‘ease of doing business’, economic growth has slowed, unemployment is at record highs and rural distress is at a peak.

Not surprisingly, Modi failed to raise these issues during the election campaign and instead ran a big-spending presidential-style populist campaign focussed on the alleged corruption of his opponents and his government’s airstrikes in Pakistan, as evidence of his strong leadership. Other candidates, like Modi’s close aide and BJP President Amit Shah, repeatedly raised the threat posed by Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, who he deemed ‘termites’. Yogi Adityanath, the BJP Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh accused the Congress Party of being infected by a ‘green virus’ for courting Muslim voters.

Pre-poll and post-poll surveys both indicate that the airstrikes and leadership played a role in creating a positive perception of the government’s performance than might be warranted by economic and social indicators.

These surveys and ground reports also indicate however, that targeted social policies, such as cash transfers, financial inclusion, micro-credit schemes, sanitation programs, free gas connections and health insurance, have played an important role in consolidating a broad social coalition based on the promise of a brighter future. This coalition consists of lower caste poor, middle class, ‘neo-middle’ class groups – all of which have been consistently mobilised by Modi and the BJP in the last five years in rhetoric and policy. Many of these schemes deliberately targeted women voters, whose support for the BJP has increased by 7% in this election.

Most of these schemes are of questionable effectiveness and many are versions of existing schemes introduced by previous governments. However, they have been re-branded to be associated with Modi, nationalism and aspiration.  Importantly, they have been actively publicised by the extensive grassroots networks of the BJP and its affiliate organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), through social media and Modi’s weekly radio program.

Indian voters often attribute the success or failure of implementation of welfare schemes to local elites and state governments while crediting the national government for the broader vision. This dynamic may help explain why the BJP performed poorly in state-level elections in December 2018 but has won by a significant majority in the national election.

The failure of the opposition

In contrast, the Congress Party struggled to raise awareness of its flagship election policy for a minimum income guarantee, due to its lack of a grassroots network and fewer resources. Its anti-populist narrative of promoting love over hate and its pledge to restore the autonomy of the institutions, such as the Supreme Court and Reserve Bank, that the BJP government has undermined, did not resonate with voters or with Congress campaigners on the ground.

Likewise, in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, the much vaunted grand alliance between the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party was not enough to overcome Modi’s popularity, or these parties’ poor record of governance, despite an increasingly unpopular BJP government in the state.

The Southern wall

Modi’s appeal did, however, have limits. Though the BJP expanded its vote in most parts of northern, western, central and north-eastern India, it hit a wall in southern India. It failed to win a seat in the state of Kerala, where voters opted for the Congress. This was despite a concerted effort by the Kerala BJP in the last year to polarise the electorate in a bid to gain supporters amongst the state’s Hindu population. The BJP was also rejected in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh with voters giving significant majorities to regional parties.

It is not a coincidence that these states have a long history of responsive governments led by political parties with strong grass-roots organisations. In these states, neither Modi nor his government’s performance were viewed favourably.  Whether or not the BJP-dominated party system lasts as long as previous systems will depend on the Congress and regional parties learning from the South. Indeed, the fate of India’s future as a pluralist democracy depends on it.