A day before the vote count in India, news appeared that the incumbents, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had already ordered a celebration cake for its Delhi headquarters. The treat itself was a mixture of Indian traditions and Western influence, pretty much like the Hindu nationalist ideology behind the party. It was a European-style cake made with the use of 7 kilograms of laddu, traditional Indian sweets.
BJP’s anticipation of a victory turned out to be correct and the final results made the electoral campaign indeed look like a cakewalk. At the time of writing, the party has already won 158 seats and is leading in 145 more races, hopeful of gaining more than 300 seats, well above the 272 majority mark. Even as the final results come in, the verdict is clear: the BJP has won, and so has its alliance, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Narendra Modi is thus poised to remain India’s prime minister for the next five years.
What are the preliminary conclusions stemming from these elections?
Narendra Modi is still the most popular politician in India. Modi is the face and the voice of his party, the engine behind much of its charisma. In a way, a part of any vote for a BJP candidate is a vote for him. It is the first time that the Hindu nationalists have a leader this recognizable, and thus they are sure to keep him as their prime minister and he’ll remain a key party leader for years to come.
With Modi, the Hindu nationalists have developed a personality cult (although this was resisted by a part of their ranks) for the first time. His face appears on party posters, government websites, and elsewhere. more than any other BJP politician. This personality cult strategy clearly worked and should continue to do so in the next few years. Modi has come a long way. His anointment as a candidate for the prime minister position in 2013 was met with much opposition from older leadership. For a certain period of time, now long forgotten, Modi was described as a party outsider (strong in his state of Gujarat but out of touch with the central leadership). Now, however, it is impossible to see Modi as anything other than central, and the grip of his close aide, Amit Shah, over the party structure should become even stronger now that the BJP has won an even more decisive victory than it achieved in 2014.
The Hindu nationalist ideology behind the BJP does not generate as much negativity in the electorate as many expected it would. In 2014, Modi and the BJP won the elections on the promise of development, marginalizing the ideological aspects of their narrative. Their recent rule, however, has shown that the party has no intention of sidelining their ideology in practice. While Hindu nationalism was less evident in its political economy or foreign policy (as I argued earlier), it was felt in parts of its education policy, in a significant number of religion-related social tensions, or in government’s approach to Muslim refugees. None of this apparently tilted the scales against the BJP, just like its leaders’ personal records didn’t turn voters away: Modi’s role in the Gujarat 2002 riots; the appointment of a radical religious figurehead, Yogi Adityanath, as the party’s chief minister of the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh in 2017; or the fielding of a terror-accused Hindu radical, Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, in the current elections. Modi just got re-elected, the party won a handsome result in Uttar Pradesh, and Thakur won her constituency battle as well.
This is only partially about the BJP’s moderate electorate believing that the nationalist ideology is not affecting its policy prescriptions; partially, what must have happened is that Hindu nationalism is becoming gradually more accepted among some quarters of Indian society. Moreover, the party’s reference to Hindu religious ideas actually resonate quite well among a significant number of believers. Since the BJP will be convinced its policies actually worked, we may expect a mix of its policies and nationalist agenda to continue through its opening, 2019-2024 tenure.
The BJP is, in practice, the only national party in India. (Never mind the Election Commission of India’s formal categories.) No other party – whether ally, a foe, or a neutral party – comes close to BJP’s results. As of now, the second-best result after the 300 seats the BJP may have is the Congress, which at present count has taken only 51 seats, just over one-sixth of the BJP’s count. In India’s first-past-the-post system it becomes even more difficult for an array of smaller parties to take on such a dominant entity; it is actually impossible without a larger alliance. To head it, the Congress would have to both revive itself as a national party and build a much wider alliance of regional parties than what it has now. So far, however, the Congress has failed on both accounts. In 2024, a much wider alliance will have to face the BJP (in comparison to the present campaign) to have a chance of defeating Modi’s party.
The BJP is a master of the narrative, the resources, and the electoral strategy among Indian parties. These weapons were possibly crucial in overcoming the anti-incumbency factor and the downsides of its tenure that otherwise were quite significant: the economic slowdown, agrarian distress, the failure of some of the economic policies (such as demonetization). Contrary to anti-incumbency logic, BJP’s 2019 result is actually even better than 2014. Its vote share is also poised to be its best one so far.
The party is far ahead in terms of finances compared to 2014. As political analysts such as Yogendra Yadav pointed out, Modi’s party has received 95 percent of all electoral bonds – private donations – obtained by all Indian political parties recently. As Shivam Vij observed, the Election Commission of India’s limits on campaign expenditure meant that during these elections the street campaign was much more modest, and the Indian electoral battle started to look much more “presidential.” The image of the party and its leader became even more important in proportion to the activities of the constituency candidates.
The BJP also mastered controlling the narrative by being immensely active on social media, tackling the traditional media, and through other, similar activities (and Modi was one of the champions of this strategy). Apart from an internet onslaught by his party, Modi was careful not to address press conferences (apart from a one during which he hardly spoke) and to pick only those journalists and media that would interview him in a very gentle and even laudatory way. The government also skillfully managed to showcase its bold stance against Pakistan (and the actions of its armed forces) during the recent tensions in a manner that probably earned it additional votes. Such an attitude allowed the party to popularize its issues and its interpretations, apparently partially covering the negative sides of its tenure, while its financial resources allowed the BJP to raise the flags of this narrative on poles much higher than those of rival parties.
Moreover, electoral strategies, especially in the first-past-the-post system, are about a skillful placement of pawns and popular figures on the chessboard of constituencies. Not all can win: Losing money and time on some of them is a part of the game. Under its chief strategist, Amit Shah, the BJP has become unmatched in this allocation. In the 2014 elections it had a 1.67 vote-seat multiplier — the ratio of how well received votes are translated into seats won — which was a record in Indian history (as per Palshikar, Kumar, and Lodha, “Electoral Politics in India. Resurgence of the Bharatiya Janata Party”). As observed today by Neelanjan Sircar, both these and the 2014 elections also revealed BJP’s high “strike rate” against its chief rival, the Congress – in most of the constituencies where the candidates of the two parties were the top contenders, the BJP won. Thus, the party not only learned how to win but where to win.
The main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, needs leadership reform as it lacks nearly all advantages that the BJP has: The resources, the narrative, electoral strategies, and a charismatic leader. The Congress’ one edge was its usually outspoken secular ideology, which meant that many social groups — religious minorities and the moderate Hindu electorate — used to be attracted to the party in the past. This effect is no longer so apparent, however. Neither does the Congress have a coherent ideology to offer anymore, its secularism being a very vague and uneven response to religious nationalism, and its socialism being in fact shared by nearly all Indian political parties (in terms of supporting pro-poor, welfare programs). The 2014-2019 tenure proved that the BJP continued many welfare programs of the earlier, mostly Congress-led government. Why would the people vote for the Congress, then, if the BJP can promise the same policies and win the elections much more easily?
In the 1950s, the Congress was a master of the narrative and a party with the apparent, politically dominant ideology; it was the Hindu nationalists who were looking for ways to emerge as an alternative. Now, the Congress would have to refashion itself to convince voters that it can be a viable alternative, and not just be the shadow of the incumbent, the anti-BJP, which it is now. It also needs to be stressed that the Congress leadership has failed on numerous occasions during the last few years, having lost a long string of elections. During earlier, better days — the two tenures in central power, 2004-2009 and 2009-2014 — the party and the government was in fact led by Sonia Gandhi. She has groomed her son, Rahul Gandhi, to be the next party leader and perhaps even the future prime minister. Now there is no doubt, however, that Rahul Gandhi is no match for Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. The Congress does need a very comprehensive leadership shuffle, but this seems unlikely to happen. Or perhaps it is still time for another party to take over Congress’ place?
India is poised to live under a stable, functioning, full-tenure government. While everything is possible in politics, the risk of Modi’s government losing its majority looks very narrow now. In 2014, the party alone had 10 more seats above a minimum majority but lost this edge when its parliamentarians took over various positions and had to abandon their legislative seats. Both then and now the party’s alliance, National Democratic Alliance, shields it from such threats.
I had earlier wrongly assumed that the BJP may get fewer seats this time and the same might happen to its allies. The BJP’s score in 2019 is actually higher by around 20 seats, and thus approximately 30 seats above the majority threshold. This means that the NDA’s overall result is less important: But it is not bad either. In 2014, the rest of the NDA gave the BJP 54 seats but since then it lost a major ally, the Telugu Desam Party. The three really significant allies of the BJP as of now are the Shiv Sena of Maharashtra, the Janata Dal (United) of Bihar, and the AIADMK of Tamil Nadu. AIADMK got beaten this time around, but Shiv Sena’s and JD(U)’s results are already poised to cross 30 seats, offering two auxiliary pillars for Narendra Modi’s new government.
It is striking that in three cases the sweeping regional victories belong to nonaligned regional parties: the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi in Telangana, and the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh. These results are seconded by those of three other regional, nonaligned parties — which were expected by many to cut into BJP’s tally. While they did not succeed as much as many predicted, they did put up a meaningful fight — AITC in West Bengal and the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party duo in Uttar Pradesh. None of these parties aligned themselves with the Congress.
The Congress still has, I believe, wider alliance-building capabilities than the BJP, especially among parties that represent electorates apprehensive of the dominance of northern, Hindi-speaking India (where the BJP has a significant support base) and the parties strongly supported by religious minorities. But these alliance capabilities were hardly apparent this time – they may exist on the ideological level, but for practical purposes Congress was perceived as an unlikely victor.
During a past election in India, the Congress leader Indira Gandhi, upon being asked what the main electoral issue on which her party would fight the election was, boldly replied: “I am the issue.” A somewhat similar thing happened this time with Narendra Modi (and he actually said a similar thing during the election campaign). To a large degree and by way of generalization, Modi was the issue of these elections – and the voters have issued him a fresh mandate.