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The Indian election draws near

  • Published at 12:03 am March 31st, 2019
Modi again? BIGSTOCK

Can the BJP win a direct majority in parliament? 

The next Indian general election will take place in seven phases between April and May this year. It will be held from April 11 to May 19, and votes will be counted on May 23. It will be the largest the world has ever seen. The lower house has 543 elected seats and any party or coalition will need a minimum of 272 MPs to form a government.

This time, more than 900 million people (bigger than the population of Europe and Australia combined) above the age of 18 are expected to cast their ballots at nearly a million polling stations. 

Observers have noted in this regard that elections in India have become long-drawn-out affairs because of the need to create security in polling stations through the deployment of not only local police, but also federal forces. In 2014, parties and candidates throughout India spent nearly $5 billion during the election. Analysts believe that this time, the total figures of overall expenditure might reach nearly double of that amount. 

Another interesting aspect that has been drawing the attention of election observers in the past and also in the present is the gradual increase in women taking interest to come and vote in Indian parliamentary elections. Several local elections in 2018 have demonstrated that the turnout of women was higher than men in two-thirds of Indian states. This probably happened because several political parties have been focusing on women as a constituency and offering them, particularly in rural India, different kinds of gifts -- from education loans to free cooking gas cylinders, and even bicycles for girls. 

In 2014, Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) received almost a third of the popular vote alone and won 282 of the 428 seats it contested. This was the first time since 1984 that any Indian political party had won an absolute majority by itself in a general election. This success was attributed to Modi having the ability to promote himself as a decisive, hard-working leader who believed in ushering in after 2014 corruption-free “better times.” 

Analysts believe that this time also the 2019 election will not only be a referendum of how Modi has performed in promoting India’s socio-economic agenda, but also in the manner in which his government has been able to ensure India’s security through their armed forces and law enforcement authorities. 

Comparably, there is a different sort of focus on the 133-year-old Congress party. In 2014, this party suffered its worst ever defeat in a general election. It won a mere 44 seats -- compared to 206 seats in 2009 -- and picked up less than 20% of the popular vote. 

Such criticism, however, became slightly low-key in December 2018 when Congress staged a partial revival by winning three key northern states from the BJP. Many attributed this recovery to anti-incumbency, as two of the three states had been ruled by the BJP for years. 

Some critics are saying that under Modi, the economy has lost the requisite momentum. They are pointing out that in the past two years, farm incomes have stagnated because of a crop glut and declining commodity prices. This has led to angry farmers being saddled with debt and creation of bad loans in some of India’s state-owned banks. They are also drawing attention to the contentious 2016 currency ban -- locally called “demonetization” -- and the complex and badly executed new uniform goods and services tax that has affected small and medium entrepreneurs. 

This in turn has also led to reduction in export in some tertiary sectors. 

It is being alleged that this dynamics has reduced growth and has had an adverse effect on generating employment in India’s huge informal economy, both in the rural and urban areas. Over the last two years, this has emerged as a giant challenge. Economists have pointed out that this is drawing special focus, as more than half of Indians are aged 25 or under, and some 12 million enter the workforce in that country each year.

On the other hand, BJP supporters have drawn attention through the media to certain positive facts within the financial sector. They have indicated that inflation is in check, increased government spending in infrastructure and public works has created dynamism within the economy, and that despite some constraints, growth is expected to be at least 6.8% this fiscal year. 

Modi’s government has also announced direct cash transfers to farmers and waivers of farm loans. It has also promised job quotas for the less well-to-do among the upper castes and other religions. Pro-Congress analysts, however, have been quick to point out that India’s GDP needs to grow at a rate faster than 7% for the country to continue to pull millions out of poverty.

Some analysts have also been referring to BJP’s approach in electioneering through muscular nationalism and political Hinduism. They believe that this might create greater divisions among the different communities living in different parts of India. Radical nationalist rhetoric has already emboldened radical right-wing groups towards aggressive enforcement of anti-cow slaughter laws. 

This scenario has acquired a special status after the recent tit-for-tat aerial bombings by India and Pakistan at the end of February, following a deadly suicide attack in Indian-administered Kashmir. This has triggered more nationalistic scenarios, and Modi has made it clear that he and BJP consider national security a key plank of his campaign. 

The opposition led by the Congress Party, on the other hand, does not appear to have been able to come up with a persuasive counter-narrative. This is bound to affect millions of swing votes going Modi’s way. The last important thing that will be followed carefully will be the evolving political dynamics in the socially divided northern state of Uttar Pradesh -- home to more than 16% of India’s population. 

Eighty members of parliament are elected from here. In the 2014 election, the BJP won 71 of the state’s 80 seats. Mr Modi’s charisma and his ability to stitch together a rainbow coalition of castes contributed to this success. This time, some think that the efforts of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) might stop such a rout. If that happens, it will affect BJP having a direct majority in the parliament. The coming elections will prove which side of the coin the people have agreed with pertaining to all these different dimensions. 

Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance.