The Pulse

Lessons From India’s Election for the Evolution of the Indian Political System

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The Pulse

Lessons From India’s Election for the Evolution of the Indian Political System

India’s state assembly elections suggest a clear path ahead for the country’s politics.

Lessons From India’s Election for the Evolution of the Indian Political System
Credit: Flickr/ Liji Jinaraj

As the results from India’s latest state assembly elections show, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is on a roll, giving Prime Minister Narendra Modi a resounding mandate. Not only will the BJP come to power in the two states whose legislative assemblies they won majorities in, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, they will also come to power in the states of Goa and Manipur.

It is telling that even though the opposition Congress Party won more seats than the BJP in both Goa and Manipur (despite losing the popular vote in both places), it failed to garner outright majorities in either of those states, and as such, was ultimately edged out in the process of forming coalitions with smaller parties by the BJP. Apparently, nobody wants to hitch themselves to a sinking ship.

For example, in Goa, the Goa Forward Party, which had positioned itself as a secular, anti-BJP party, aligned with the BJP soon after the election, while the Congress Party vacillated and displayed confused behavior. And in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP won its most important victory, taking 75 percent of the seats in the assembly, the alliance between Congress Party and the incumbent Samajwadi Party was seen as adding no value at all to the Samajwadi Party’s chances, and perhaps even hurting it because the Samajwadi had to concede 105 spots to Congress as part the alliance, 105 spots it could have contested itself. Congress emerged with only seven seats.

What do the results of the current elections mean for the evolution of party politics in India? For a start, it is clear that the BJP has now definitely replaced Congress as the dominant party in India on both the national and state levels. It has managed to expand its reach across India, whereas five years ago, it was seen as a northern and western party. In Manipur in the northeast, it went from zero seats in the Legislative Assembly in the 2012 election to 21 seats this election, giving it a shot at controlling a third state in this region (after Arunachal Pradesh and Assam), often considered a Congress bastion. Despite allegations that BJP victories would be bad for Muslims, there is no evidence for this, and many Muslims have benefited from BJP developmental policies. In Uttar Pradesh, many Muslims, especially women voted for the BJP, due to both its economic policies and Modi’s support for challenging a provision in Muslim personal law, the practice of “triple talaq,” by which a man can utter the Arabic word talaq three times and divorce his wife.

It is a welcome development that Muslims are voting for the BJP, because this helps it shed its image that it is an inherently communal party, despite the large role Hindutva plays in its ideology. This removes the rationale for “secular” alliances against it between otherwise incompatible parties in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and in a way, helps create the space for the development for an actual ideological alternative to the BJP, rather than an opposition based on being anti-BJP.

The BJP has found a winning formula in its combination of Hindutva tempered by the necessity of reaching out to non-Hindus with neoliberalism tempered by populism, as Ruchir Sharma pointed out in the New York Times. Despite fears about democracy’s strength in India, the strength of the BJP and the centralization of power in Modi’s hands, due to his party’s wins in state elections, can only be a good thing because it brings a much needed stability to a country that was previously unable to get things done because of political fragmentation.

The real question lies in what party or combination of parties will emerge as the most effective opposition in the new era of BJP-dominated India. Voters in India are fickle, often giving majorities to different parties in successive elections. Despite all the problems faced by the Congress Party, particularly the concentration of power in the increasingly inept Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, it has a coherent center-left ideology, maintains a strong institutional base across all of India, as well as a certain prestige that comes with age and its role in past governance and India’s independence movement. It has experience dealing with security and monetary issues on the national level, no matter how it handled them, something no other opposition party, most of which are regional, can say.

As a result, Congress is still the main opposition party, winning 2017’s elections in Punjab, as well as the greatest number of seats in Goa and Manipur, while remaining the main opposition party in Uttarakhand. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), founded only a few years ago, had huge aims to replace Congress as the main opposition to the BJP, but failed to win in Punjab and did not even pick up any seats anywhere else. Other parties are hamstrung by their narrow regional or caste bases and are unable to be players across multiple states. The large number of regional parties in states like Uttar Pradesh in fact make them more likely to divide the non-BJP vote. Therefore, Congress and Congress alone can function as a national opposition party, although India is a far cry away from functioning as a two-party system.

For at least the next decade, it is highly likely that the BJP will dominate India while other parties continue to operate in a constitutional framework that remains free and fair, but trends favor the continued political stability that the BJP brings at the national level. Therefore, India could increasingly take a path that resembles what some like Japan or Turkey have been on — democracies dominated by a single party with a charismatic figure at the helm.