The Pulse

3 Critical Questions After India’s Historic 2019 General Elections

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The Pulse

3 Critical Questions After India’s Historic 2019 General Elections

India’s 2019 elections may herald a new political era.

3 Critical Questions After India’s Historic 2019 General Elections
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ A.Savin

On May 23, the Election Commission of India (ECI) announced the results of India’s 2019 general elections for the lower house (Lok Sabha) of the Indian parliament. India’s prime ministers are elected by a majority of the parliament.

Led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a whopping majority—303 seats, out of 543. This ensured its return to power; in 2014, it won only 282 seats. After a period of coalition governments during the 1990s and 2000s, India is now entering a period of centralized consolidation by a national party, the first since 1984.

The alliance of parties led by the BJP, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won 353 seats in total, while the main opposition alliance, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won 92 seats, while the erstwhile dominant Indian National Congress (INC) which led the UPA, won only 51. While regional state and caste based parties won most of the rest of the 98 seats, the massive victory of the BJP heralds the end of a period of political fragmentation that dominated India at the turn of the century. This reflects two things in particular: first, the narrow constituencies of these parties are not broad enough to deliver benefits to their voters—at least on the national level; and second, in terms of identity and narrative, Indians are thinking in terms of broader categories (Hindu, Indian, conservative, liberal) rather than the limited categories of caste and language.  This reflects the growing size of the middle class, and a population now used to being part of a single nation because of mass media, movies, news, and domestic travel.

Now that the election is done and over with, looking back on the electoral process and outcome with a bird’s eye view, three questions come to mind.

Was the election absolutely free and fair?

The answer is an emphatic yes. That this question was raised during the election is mostly a reflection of anxieties by opposition. India’s ECI is known for its accuracy and independence, and it is hard to see how it would have been compromised in any manner. Particularly disturbing was the allegation that the electronic voting machines (EVMs) used in the election might have been hacked by the BJP. (Data matching the results of the machines with a paper trail has disproved this.) Hacking the EVMs would have been very difficult as the machines were not networked, so they would have had to be physically fixed instead. Of course, if this had happened, people would have noticed it.

On the other hand, there is no denying that the BJP government used its position in power to market and promote itself more aggressively than the opposition, which give it somewhat of a perception boost. This, however, is not indicative of any irregularities in the Indian election, which was free and fair, and accurately reflects the electoral desires of the Indian population.

Is the defeated Congress Party toast?

The jury is out on this question. The party has lost decisively in two consecutive national elections (2014 and 2019), so it is hard to argue that its 2014 electoral defeat was a fluke. Yet, the Congress Party did decently in local elections last year, defeating the BJP in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, and forming the government in those states. Additionally, the party still retains a national level organization, and was able to win seats, in 2019’s general elections, in states in India as far apart and different as Punjab and Kerala.

Ideologically, and in terms of leadership, though, the party is largely aimless. It has the structure, the history, and the presence in India to be competitive, but has yet to settle on how. The party’s biggest dilemma is what to do about the Nehru-Gandhi family that has led it for four successive generations. On one hand, the Gandhi family, especially insipid individuals such as the party leader Rahul Gandhi, holds the party back from becoming more meritocratic and open. Narendra Modi rose from among the ranks of the BJP to rule India, but a similar outcome for a young leader in Congress is impossible. Yet, on the other hand, the family is what holds the party together. Without such a center, and without the strong ideological commitment that the BJP’s cadres have, it is quite conceivable that the Congress Party without splinter due to infighting. As it is, regional charismatic leaders have broken off from the Congress Party to form their own outfits, including some very successful ones in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh.

The position of Congress will remain precarious unless it transitions from an old-school feudal, dynastic party with a fig-leaf center-left ideology to a party that actually holds and promotes its principles first and foremost. While it currently maintains a socialist and secualarist position, it is populated mostly by scions of those who led India’s independence movement, rural landlords, and an Anglicized elite that first arose during the British Raj. Many of the policies of the Congress Party, though poorly implemented, led eventually to the gradual emergence of the Indian population out of its timeless traditionalism and into the modern world of aspiration and politics, and this decidedly less Westernized voting population is what led to the Congress’ decline once mass politics were discovered.

Yet, the Congress Party won around 22 percent of the vote in the 2019 elections, which, compared with the BJP’s 38 percent share, is quite decent. There is clearly space in the Indian political spectrum for a center-left and non-Hindutva party, but whether Congress, or some new party can fulfill this role remains to be seen.

Is the election evidence of a spike in Hindu-extremism among the population?

This is perhaps the most contentious issue, especially in the domestic India and international narrative about India’s politics. Are the Indian people becoming more ardent believers in Hindutva (political Hinduism)? Will this ideology dominate India, to the detriment of minorities?

In a sense, the BJP did run a campaign on Hindu values that could be seen as divisive in the religious light. And this probably consolidated the Hindu vote to a greater extent than in previous elections, especially in districts where Hindu-Muslim tensions are high. But in another sense, the BJP’s campaign united the Hindu vote to a greater extent than before, as it had previously been more fragmented by caste—many analysts forget that dalits (untouchables) are Hindus too, and for the most part, aspire to an equal status within that tradition, rather than being antagonistic to it.

Anecdotal reporting has consistently held that the average BJP voter does not particularly care about issues associated with the Hindu right, such as love jihad and cow protection. Many urban, liberal, young middle-class voters voted for the BJP, but their feelings were informed less by religion, and more by nationalism, a sense of a civilization rising again after hundreds of years of decline, and alignment with the assertive image Modi projected of India to the world.

More than ideational narratives, were the economic changes that helped the BJP, particularly in the northern and central Hindi-speaking districts it swept. While much of the media commonly argued that because Modi had failed to keep most of his economic promises, his party had to resort to divisive rhetoric to win the election, this is not strictly true. While the economic aspirations of much of the middle class and farmers were not met, Modi still did well among these groups, as well as the poorest segments of the Indian population, who often felt that, policies aside, Modi channeled their perspectives and views.

It is difficult for the average Western reader to understand how grinding and demeaning rural poverty, especially among the lowest castes, was in India. Despite a lack of formal economic growth, the lives of many of the poorest of the poor “had been altered by one or some or all of Modi’s many welfare schemes. In some cases, the alteration was real—funds for building a house—and, in many cases, there was firm hope that change is coming.” Another report, from rural Jharkhand—one of India’s poorest and most tribal states—reflected this perception, and the idea that “only Modi” could bring the poorest Indians up, reflecting, perhaps, his own roots. Villagers interviewed spoke of the construction of roads and houses, and the delivery of gas cylinders. While still underemployed or unemployed, these changes were still a step up from before.

This point is very important in understanding India. People voted for the BJP, because, despite all of its flaws, it delivered a basic level of governance and sustenance to India’s population that no other party did—or was perceived to have done so. The other options: Congress, regional parties, caste-based parties, were perceived by a significant segment of the population to have been so useless and incompetent, than people were willing to support Modi and the BJP regardless of economic errors and social tensions. Most people know that Modi’s rhetoric is much more lofty than the implementation of his promises, but they vote for him anyway.

There is a definitely certain faction of the BJP that is hate-mongering, and would like nothing better than to establish a Hindu state and make life difficult for Muslims. But, this faction is tempered by the population’s expectations, India’s still diverse demographic landscape, and moderates within the BJP. Whether it is the urban youth or the rural poor, the average BJP voter is only nationalistic to an extent; the rest of the party’s success does not derive from Hindutva, but from its perception as being assertive of India’s civilizational values to the world or as being pro-poor. Compared to the leadership of Congress, the BJP’s leadership seems more in tune with the values and lifestyles of the average Indian voter.