So, many pundits (including this one) on India have egg all over their faces. There will never be a single party majority government again, we said. Well, the man from Gujarat with the 56″ chest (his words, not mine) has confounded all expectations. The BJP secured 282 seats, well in excess of the 272 required for a majority in India’s lower house. Its alliance, the NDA, secured 336 in total. Congress in contrast, suffered its worst ever electoral defeat. At the start of the campaign it was agreed that a seats share less than 100 would be a disaster. In the event, it secured only 44!
What will this mean for Indian politics? Have we seen a sea change or is this election not really that historic? Despite the fact that the BJP could rule alone, it is unlikely to do so. The NDA alliance was not unimportant to the BJPs success and it will also need allies to pass legislation in India’s upper house, the Rajya Sabha where it has only 46 members. Although there will be those within the Sangh Parivar (Hindu family) of organisations who would use this victory to argue that the way forward is to be more right wing Hindu, it would be a brave BJP electoral strategist who would risk jettisoning the NDA. Therefore we should not expect an immediate push towards implementing such controversial policies such as a uniform civil code or building a temple at Ayodhya. Having said that, Modi’s success in winning so many seats indicates that the taint of Gujarat has not put off voters. The question is, how many voted for him despite of the Gujarat issue, and how many did he appeal to as a result of it? What does this mean for secularism in India? Will Modi focus on development as much of his campaign rhetoric suggested, or will other, less palatable agendas assert themselves?
Analyst of Hindu nationalism, Christophe Jaffrelot has suggested that Modi will be economically focused but if this does not work then he may change his strategy. On the campaign trail, Modi did not only focus on development issues, there were cases in the northern Hindi speaking states of Uttar Pradesh and Bhihar when the BJP was happy to play the communal card for electoral advantage. The BJP did much better than expected in these states (which return 80 and 40 seats to the Lok Sabha respectively – the BJP secured 71 seats in UP and 22 in Bihar) indicating that although many are writing of Modi being able to transcend caste politics and the role of development narratives in the campaign, that anti-minority sentiment was also important to his success.
Where does this leave the Congress Party? Congress had ruled for two full terms and was tired and dispirited, tainted with corruption and the perception of an ineffective prime minister in Manmohan Singh. Rahul Gandhi, son of Rajiv and Sonia was parachuted in to take the helm but proved himself to be an inept orator. That Congress did not seriously expect to win can be illustrated by the fact that the Congress did not project him as their prime ministerial candidate. His sister Priyanka Vadra Gandhi made more of an impact on the campaign trail in the final days of the campaign and will be seen by many within the Congress as essential for their revitalization. It is important to note that Congress’s lamentable performance in terms of seat share conceals that it secured almost 20% of the vote, only just 10% less than that of the BJP – but their support was less territorially concentrated. Congress were as much a victim of the simple plurality electoral system as they had been its beneficiaries before 1989.
But two caveats need to be borne in mind. Firstly, Congress’s poor performance means that it may be harder to secure favourable seat sharing alliances in future (as argued on this blog by E Sridharan, coalition partners make alliances on the basis of strength. If the Congress is perceived to be a dying force then this will diminish its ability to secure favourable seat sharing in the future, diminishing its national seat share significantly). Secondly, although Priyanka has been compared favourably to her grandmother, the indomitable Indira Gandhi, in terms of party organisation, the comparison is not an auspicious one. Indira Gandhi presided over the destruction of the Congress party organisation, personalizing politics. As Vicky Randall and Lars Svasand have argued, political parties play more important roles in a democratic system than merely aggregating votes or putting together policy programmes. They are also responsible for, to a large extent, training new political leaders. Congress desperately needs to revitalise its organisation, internally as well as regionally, to become an effective electoral force in the future. Will it take the necessary steps? That is unclear. What is certain is that it cannot rely solely on the Gandhi appeal anymore.
Indian democracy is strong – 66% turnout is an impressive achievement, even if 1 out of 100 voters used the ‘None of the Above’ option– and the security of the elections was, by and large, secured through the prolonged polling period. The result may not be what the liberal intelligentsia wanted and there must be real concerns about the treatment of religious minorities under a Modi majority government, given he will be much less constrained by coalition partners. However, although some regional parties, most notably in the north of the country such as the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party were all but swept aside by the Modi-wave, others in the south of the country remain powerful. Two of these are members of the NDA, the Shiv Sena and the Telugu Desam Party, but others such as the AIADMK are not. These regional players will continue to wield influence, and, as India’s federal system continues to decentralise under the influence of economic liberalisation, must not be written off yet. India in 2019 could possess a vastly different political landscape.
Professor Katharine Adeney is the Director of the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham. She is author of Federalism and Ethnic Conflict Regulation in India and Pakistan (2007) and Contemporary India (with Andrew Wyatt). She has co-edited (with Lawrence Saez) Coalition Politics and Hindu Nationalism. She tweets @katadeney