The 2019 Indian general election is underway, with voting being held in seven phases from April 11 till May 19. The election will decide who sits in India’s lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha, which preliminary surveys suggest the incumbent BJP will dominate.
– The state of the economy is a major election issue, with Modi and the BJP presiding over a high economic growth rate despite rising unemployment levels during their current administration
– Modi’s handling of the terrorist incident in Kashmir and the subsequent military response has strengthened his position by reinforcing his Hindu nationalist platform and strongman tendencies
– The BJP may not gain a clear majority of votes. It will need to form alliances with some of the 464 parties contesting the election, which may prevent it from repeating landmark reform initiatives like the 2016 demonetisation policy
EYES ARE ON THE WORLD’S LARGEST DEMOCRACY
No country compares to India when it comes to the scale and logistical complexity of running a free and fair election. With approximately 900 million eligible voters across 20 states, voting has to take place in seven phases from April 11 till May 19. Results announced on May 23 will declare who has been elected to the lower house of parliament, the “Lok Sabha”, where a 272-seat simple majority is required to form government. The new government in turn elects the prime minister.
Whilst predicting election results can throw up surprises — epitomised by Brexit and Donald Trump — preliminary surveys suggest that Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will prevail over its main opposition, Rahul Gandhi’s Indian National Congress (INC). Modi will try and attempt a repeat of the barnstorming success that the BJP achieved in 2014, a feat that resulted in India’s largest national majority victory in 30 years. The fact that the INC only won a paltry 44 seats in 2014 may hurt its chances in this election if people don’t believe it has recovered.
Although Modi is a clear favourite, an overwhelming BJP victory in 2019 is unlikely. Instead, the BJP will more than likely need to form alliances and ultimately a coalition with some of the more than 464 parties contesting the election.
PROGRESS AS WELL AS REGRESSION: THE ECONOMY AND NATIONAL SECURITY
The state of the economy is the leading election issue. On the face of it, the economy under Modi has gone from strength to strength, with average annual economic growth ranging from 6% to 8% since 2014, cementing India as the world’s fastest growing country. Coupled with a greatly improved “ease of doing business” ranking, high FDI and policies that helped bring 345 million people into the banking system in under four years, Modi appears to have a convincing argument that he has greatly improved India’s economic status. Yet under the surface, cracks appear, which Gandhi and the INC have tried to exploit.
The unemployment rate (6.1%) is at the highest level since 1972, according to leaked reports that the government refused to release; the average 7% GDP growth only contributed a 1% improvement in employment. With 1 million people joining the job market every month, providing employment would be an arduous job for any party, yet the record high unemployment is an easy target for the INC. Modi’s signature “Make in India” policy, which aimed at creating a larger manufacturing sector, has not occurred — manufacturing as a percentage of GDP has consistently decreased. Finally, the shock demonetisation campaign in 2016 targeting the black market and undeclared wealth proved to be a failure as illegal funds were still able to be deposited in banks and the identification of counterfeit currency did not increase.
Another vital area that will influence the election significantly is national security, and it is here that Modi is exhibiting his strongman tendencies to persuade voters that only he can safeguard India’s sovereignty and security. Although his record on national security is mixed — defence spending continues to fall as a percentage of GDP and violence in Kashmir has risen — Modi’s swift response to the Pulwama attack in February by ordering airstrikes in Pakistani territory was seen as deserving retribution on behalf of the nation. The INC and other opposition parties claimed Modi was war-mongering but the counter-attacks proved that a red line had been crossed and that Modi would not allow the attacks to go unpunished. The response also fed into the BJP Hindu nationalist platform by striking their Muslim-majority neighbour. The incident reinforced Modi’s strongman status, last demonstrated during his handling of the Doklam incident in 2017 when India stood its ground in a border stand-off with China.
BJP-DOMINATED GOVERNMENT: CONTINUITY WITH SLIGHT HAMSTRINGING
If the BJP and Modi are re-elected come late May, India’s foreign policy will mostly follow the path of continuity. Tensions with Pakistan will continue and may escalate if more attacks in Kashmir occur; both states are nuclear powers and have leaders unwilling to yield any strategic ground. China will remain a metaphorical Rorschach test for India under Modi, presenting opportunities in the form of economic incentives as well as threats including China’s close partnership with Pakistan, Beijing’s naval expansion into the Indian Ocean and questionable practices under the Belt and Road Initiative. Perhaps the most interesting developments will occur with the US as the Trump administration continues to seek out India as a close strategic partner whilst antagonising countries like Iran and China, both of which are important for India’s prosperity. Any definitive moves to one side of these “Cold War”-style polarised blocs will generate opposition in India due to the country’s history of non-alignment and its contemporary preference for strategic autonomy.
On the domestic front, Modi’s signature anti-corruption effort will remain in place if he is re-elected. The latest Transparency International report ranked India 78th for corruption out of 175 countries — although an improvement, corrupt practices continue to undermine the government and challenge democratic legitimacy across the country. Expect further legislative reforms and measures to make it easier to place those guilty of corruption in prison, echoed by the BJP’s latest slogan, “In five years, Modi brought the corrupt to the doors of jail. He needs another five to put them behind bars”.
Finally, momentous policy pronouncements such as the 2016 demonetisation effort may be harder to implement in the next Lok Sabha if Modi and the BJP do not win a clear majority. Depending on which parties the BJP forms a coalition with, sudden and disruptive decisions or policies may no longer be on the table. Pledges such as legislating the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill and scrapping Articles 370 and 35A of the constitution, which provide special status to Jammu and Kashmir, have been met with strong opposition, even from BJP’s allies, indicating they may not be passed through parliament despite promises from Modi. To win, Modi will need to persuade voters that only he and the BJP can keep India safe, strong and prosperous. Time will soon tell if they believe him.