Election Commission blows bugle, India takes poll position
Indian elections are not won or lost only on leadership and issues. It is a complex landscape with multiple states, multiple parties, and a battlefield where arithmetic often reigns supreme.Updated: Mar 10, 2019 21:31 IST
In 2014, soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) historic win in the general elections, a senior leader of the party was asked what lay ahead. He said, “2019. As soon as you win, the clock starts ticking towards the next polls. We cannot be a one-term wonder. A second term will cement our legacy.”
Reeling from its worst ever performance, a Congress leader had a similar response about the next objective. “All our attention must be focused on 2019. We have to survive five years, and come back. Otherwise the party’s very existence will be under threat.”
A key feature of the Indian democratic system is periodic elections. This enables a smooth transfer of power. It ensures circulation of political elites. And it keeps both the incumbent under check (for it is always looking ahead to the next poll) and the opposition hopeful (for one electoral turn can bring them back to office). Both then remain invested in the stability of the democratic system and constitutional order.
Ever since 2014, it appears that both the incumbent, the BJP, and the opposition, the Congress, and a range of regional forces have been waiting for precisely this moment. With the Election Commission announcing the dates for elections to the 17th Lok Sabha, India formally enters poll season.
What will be the nature of this election? What are the issues at stake? How do the numbers stack up as campaigning begins? And what can India expect in the next 50 days?
Under the Indian parliamentary system, in theory, when a voter goes to the polling booth, all he is voting for is a representative from his constituency. This representative is meant to frame laws in Parliament.
But electoral competition is mostly between political parties, and the party with the highest number of parliamentarians, either on its own, or in a coalition, gets to form the government. So the voter is essentially selecting not just a candidate (MP), but also the party the candidate represents, and eventually the Prime Minister (PM). The legislature and the executive are conjoined, unlike a presidential system in which they are elected separately.
This may appear basic, but it is precisely this debate which played out in 2014. Were voters electing MPs, according to local factors and arithmetic, or were they electing a PM, in keeping with a larger national outlook? Did Narendra Modi turn Indian elections into a presidential race? And what will happen in 2019?
Modi is not the first leader who has made a general election all about leadership. Jawaharlal Nehru’s elections (1952,1957,1962) and Indira Gandhi’s elections (particularly the one in 1971) were essentially presidential in nature. Even the BJP’s electoral gambits in the 1990s under Atal Bihar Vajpayee were based on leadership. Modi refined this campaign plank and took it to another level.
In 2019, the BJP is attempting to do the same. It is asking voters a simple question: would you rather have Modi or an unknown leader in a weak coalition government? And it is hoping that the image of Modi will once again succeed in rebuilding a coalition across castes, classes, geographies and override local factors. The opposition is hoping to take the election in exactly the opposite direction. It would like voters to consider local factors, prioritise narrower concerns rather than focus on national leadership.
The outcome of the 2019 election, therefore, depends on its very nature. Will it be national or local? Will electing the PM or MP be important?
But an Indian national election is too complex to be reduced to just one variable. As citizens grow more aware, aided by the spread of technology and mass media, the importance of issues will only grow. If the 2014 election was defined by anger against the past regime for its perceived corruption and inefficiency and hope for a new future, this election will be determined by a set of five issues, with sides pushing forward their competing narratives.
The first issue is national security, or, more generally, nationalism. This has shot up the charts in recent weeks in the aftermath of Pulwama.
The BJP’s story is straightforward and is following this script. The Modi government has cracked down on terror. It has also redefined the response for Pakistan-backed terror attacks, be it through the surgical strikes after Uri or air strikes after Pulwama. The following is the narrative of the government. The air strikes represented Modi’s decisiveness. He taught Pakistan a lesson. He also used India’s diplomatic strength to isolate Pakistan and bring back the pilot. Only a BJP government can keep India secure, a weak coalition government will preside over a weak security regime and would never have the strength to take on Pakistan. And any questions about the strikes come from a position of undermining national interest.
The opposition’s script on the issue is somewhat muddled. There are segments of the opposition which do not want to engage, refer to the air strikes as a matter of pride for the armed forces, and would like to shift the conversation. But there are others in the opposition who believe Modi needs be to questioned on his claims. They ask: Did the terror attack in Pulwama itself not represent an intelligence failure? What is India’s Pakistan policy, for Modi has swung from a surprise visit to the neighbouring country to talking tough? What was actually achieved in Balakot? Didn’t the fact that an Indian plane go down and an Indian pilot captured represent the government’s weakness? Did Pakistan actually land the final blow after the strikes? And what has the Modi government done to improve the situation in Kashmir or end terror decisively?
The second issue is agrarian distress and rural India.
The opposition has a robust case and argues the following. The government has not implemented the Swaminathan Commission recommendations on Minimum Support Prices. Farmer incomes are at a low; either margins are so low that livelihood is difficult or farmers are actually getting less than their cost of production and are thus driven to despair and debt traps. The government has done little to make farming attractive, treats farmers as liabilities and is leaving rural India unprepared for the future. Farmer marches and protests across the country are a symptom of this distress, as is the BJP’s losses in the state polls last year. If elected to power, the Congress has promised a blanket farm loan waiver.
The BJP, for its part, cites the PM Kisaan Scheme — a promise of Rs 6000 to small and marginal farmers, of which the first instalment of Rs 2000 is in the process of being transferred — as a landmark income support initiative. It argues that structural problems in Indian agriculture are a legacy of the past, and, instead, it has attempted to address it through soil health cards, insurance, market reforms. Productivity has in fact shot up. In addition, the Modi story for rural India goes beyond agriculture and focuses on assets. The government cites construction of houses and toilets, the distribution of gas cylinders, and electricity connectivity as big accomplishments.
The third issue is jobs.
The opposition claims that despite promising millions of jobs every year, the government has been a dismal failure on employment creation. They point to both demonetisation and the rollout of the Goods and Services Tax as having actually destroyed jobs. A recently leaked official report appears to substantiate the claim that unemployment was at a low in the year following these initiatives. The lack of progress on Make in India, the stalled private investment, the persisting twin balance sheet problem are all cited by the opposition to make the case that the government has done little to kickstart the economy, and has only favoured a few crony capitalists.
The BJP has an entirely different narrative on jobs. It argues that there has actually been substantial job creation in the service sector; the Mudra loans indicate a spurt in entrepreneurship and self employment; the government has also improved India’s ranking in the ease of doing business, which facilitates investment, which, in turn, facilitates jobs. The Modi government claims that far from encouraging cronyism, it has actually brought in key reforms to institute cleaner capitalism — from the bankruptcy code to the GST — and this will slowly begin showing dividends. As proof of its sound economic management, the government also points to low inflation.
The fourth issue is identity, which encompasses both caste and religion.
For the opposition, the BJP regime is marked by a strong element of Hindu upper caste domination, which is geared against Dalits. By suggesting that the BJP is against reservations, pointing to the presence of upper castes at the top echelons in the party, arguing that there is a tilt towards Thakurs in key states like UP, and claiming that caste atrocities have increased, the opposition hopes to wean away Dalits and perhaps even sections of OBCs from BJP.
On caste, the BJP has attempted to keep intact its wide coalition. By restoring the original provisions of the Prevention of Atrocities Act, or restoring department wise reservations for marginalised in universities in the final cabinet meeting, the government hopes to convince Dalits its interests are supreme; by introducing 10 percent reservation for economically weaker sections, it hopes to signal to ‘General castes’ - its old core vote - that the government has taken steps to make the system more just for then; by pointing to the ongoing work of the commission to sub categorise OBCs, BJP will tell OBC groups that it is drawing up a more equitable system where advantages are not monopolised by only the most dominant of the backward groups.
The identity debate will play out in the realm of religion too. Some opposition parties will be vocal in pointing out that BJP’s regime was marked by outright majoritarianism; state backed vigilantism in the name of cow protection; marginalisation of Muslims from the political sphere; and assault on their livelihoods. Most opposition parties - particularly Congress, but also key regional forces in UP like Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party - will seek to capitalise on the Muslim vote, but not make this an explicit part of the agenda for they fear that it will lead to counter-consolidation of Hindus in favour of the BJP. But make no mistake, as subtext, religion will matter. For its part, the BJP will make an attempt to play the Hindutva card, in order to construct a wide vote across caste and class cleavages. From the (temporarily stalled) Citizenship Amendment bill to promises of Ram Temple, from acting tough against illegal (Muslim) immigrants to blurring the line between nationalism and Hindutva and encouraging polarisation on the ground, expect the BJP machine to deploy a range of tools.
And the fifth issue is the state of Indian democracy or institutions.
For the opposition, the post 2014 period has been marked by increasingly authoritarian rule of Modi, aided by BJP president Amit Shah. They allege that all institutions - from the cabinet to Election Commission, from Central Bureau of Investigation to the Reserve Bank of India, from the judiciary to the media - have all been compromised in this quest to create an almost totalitarian set up where party faithful take over all spaces. The BJP argues that distortion and politicisation of institutions is once again a legacy of the Congress. These allegations are only a result of an old entrenched elite having lost power. And in fact, they claim, what is now visible is deeper democratisation with a new segment of people, away from Westernised urban centric backgrounds but more rooted to the soil, exercising power.
But Indian elections are not won or lost only on leadership and issues. It is a complex landscape with multiple states, multiple parties, and a battlefield where arithmetic often reigns supreme.
The BJP begins its campaign way ahead of the rest of the pack. This is both the party’s strength and weakness. It swept north, west and central India in 2014. Replicating the performance in these regions will be particularly difficult because either the party now faces three tiers of anti incumbency in many of these states - it is in power at the centre, in the state, and has the MP from most constituencies across Bihar, UP, Uttarakhand, Himachal, Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra - or has just lost power in states - be it MP, Rajasthan or Chhattisgarh. It also has an additional challenge in the form of alliances, especially the SP-BSP alliance in UP.
The Modi-Shah machine’s entire effort will be to defend its gains in this belt, and it believes the surge in nationalist sentiment post the air strikes will benefit them most precisely in this belt. The opposition’s entire effort will be to limit the BJP to the bare minimum here. This will either take the form of sharp bipolar contests in which the Congress is the principal challenger, or triangular contests in which the BJP will face a regional force with Congress playing a supplementary role.
If the game in the heartland for the BJP will be defence, in the east and south, it will be expansion. The BJP has invested remarkable energy in West Bengal and Odisha in particular. The opposition is more enthused here, however, for it believes that the BJP has not been able to make enough inroads independently in West Bengal or Odisha to take on the Trinamool or Biju Janata Dal; it has weakened its chances in the Northeast by pushing the Citizenship Bill; and it has minimal presence across all southern states except Karnataka where a Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) alliance will take them on.
It would be foolhardy to make any predictions based on these regional variations at the moment. But what we can say is the following.
The BJP is likely to dip from its high of 282 seats in 2014, but the extent of the dip is not known. The Congress is likely to gain somewhat from its low of 44 seats in 2014, but the extent of the gain is not clear. There will be a coalition in power after 2019 with regional parties probably exercising more say unlike in the post 2014 arrangement, but whether they will indeed exercise the veto or get leadership or play a supplementary role to a national party is not clear. And there will be a reconfiguration of forces after the results are out, with many of those currently on the fence — the BJD, Telangana Rashtriya Samithi or YSR Congress Party — more willing to reveal their cards.
But beyond the outcome, Indian elections are a remarkable exercise in allowing society to have a voice in shaping who runs the state. It is a moment for social conflicts and fault lines to play out in a civil, non violent and democratic manner. It is a moment for the political elites to understand and adapt to the demands of a new, empowered citizenry. And it is the occasion to keep this utterly diverse landscape tied together to a common political unit. Both the campaign and the polling over two months will once again be a tribute to the foresight of the Constitution’s founding fathers, as India charts the path for the next five years.
First Published: Mar 10, 2019 20:11 IST