The Battle for India is On

By: Michael Sauer

In a matter of weeks, the largest election in the history of democracy will commence. Squaring off are two grand political coalitions spearheaded by very dissimilar, yet equally charismatic leaders. Prime Minister Narendra Modi looks to cement another 5-year lease on government with his potent Bharatiya Janata Party (“Indian People’s Party”). Challenging Modi is the young leader of the Indian National Congress (INC), Rahul Gandhi. Hailing from the most storied political dynasty of the Indian Republic, Rahul Gandhi’s leadership has infused new blood, confidence, and political fortune into the decadent party. These men, and the parties they lead, have considerably different visions for India’s future. Expert analysts have characterized the upcoming election as ‘India’s most important election in decades.’ To better appreciate this critical episode of Indian democracy, let’s contextualize the election by examining India’s electoral format, major political parties and alliances, and issues influencing the upcoming vote.

India’s election structure is incredibly unique. From April 11th to May 19th, the Indian public will vote in 7 separate phases to decide upon their new government in Parliament’s lower house, the Lok Sabha. Every region in the country is designated a specific voting phase, which takes place over the course of several days. After all provinces have concluded voting, the votes are tallied, and the winners are declared via a first-past-the-post electoral system. Modeled after the British House of Commons, the Lok Sabha has exclusive authority to select a Prime Minister. Doing so demands a secure majority, composed of a single party or coalition, in power. With 543 seats in total, majority rule necessitates no fewer than 272 seats to form a government. National policy making is shared with the parliamentary upper house, the Rajya Sabha, whose membership is comprised of appointees from state legislatures.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a right-wing Hindu nationalist party, currently governing, or in coalition, in 22 of India’s 27 states. Their foundational ideological centerpiece rests in Hindutva, the idea that Hinduism takes precedence over other religions. It seeks to implant Hindu teachings, culture, and values countrywide. Naturally, the BJP’s nationalist bent compromises minority groups by equipping Hindi extremist groups with an ideological framework to espouse Hindu-centric beliefs. Assaults and intimidation against members of Muslim communities are rather frequent occurrences. Police authorities, either lacking in willpower or ability, have not comprehensively prevented these incidents from occurring. These episodes unearth a persistent cleavage in Indian society. Still, it is imperative to value the import of Hindu nationalism.

In a nation of over 1.3 billion people, nearly 80 percent of citizens – roughly one billion people – are Hindu. Britain’s 1947 partition of India uprooted the region’s social fabric overnight by forcing millions of refugees to seek sanctuary in a country corresponding to their religion. Britain had hoped that lumping people together on the basis of religion would ultimately foster social and political cohesion, irrespective of partition’s extensive human toll. Hinduism was a central thread delineating India from the rest. Though rapidly industrializing, India remains a rural and poor nation. Religion endures as the lifeblood of Indian society, and the BJP has engineered substantial political success by making Hinduism a cornerstone of its politics. Today, as in the early days of the fledgling republic, Hinduism persists as a national unifier among its adherents.

The BJP falls under the umbrella of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Formed in 1998 at the behest of the BJP, the NDA is a compilation of right-wing parties throughout India that jointly comprise the national government. While the BJP does not presently need a coalition for majority in the Lok Sabha, retaining the coalition is consequential. The party, despite its popularity, has limited reach within India – specifically on the east coast. In developing local party alliances, the BJP has ascertained greater electoral likelihood. These parties are conversant to regional priorities and find organization with the BJP operationally beneficial toward implementing their agenda. Likewise, the BJP opportunistically pursues party growth. BJP’s pan-India platform is typically untenable in local politics, yet a small initial presence can unlock new avenues for future BJP expansion. Political parties, large and small alike, profit greatly from the symbiosis of the NDA.  

Alternate to the BJP is the Indian National Congress (INC), representing India’s political left. The INC was the first true political party of modern India, arising in 1885 as the voice of colonial India in the British Empire. Under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, the INC inspired the ‘Quit India’ movement to attain national independence, finally realized in 1947. For most of the 20th century, the INC maintained dominance in Parliament by virtue of its secular nationalism, commitment to the welfare state, and legacy as the party of independence.  Today, the INC adheres to a secular ideology driven by tolerance, belief in equality, and strong integration of the state within the economy. Its state-driven economic philosophy, in consortium with the welfare state, is the most prominent feature of the INC. Even decades following independence, these policies remained popular and preserved the party’s foothold on power. Yet, there is tremendous downside to be suffered when the economy stagnates and government corruption intensifies, as the INC discovered in 2014.

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is a collection of left-wing parties that serves as the ideological counterbalance to the NDA. After the INC failed to reach an absolute majority in the 2004 elections, the party initiated the UPA to sustain a government. As the BJP’s eminence has risen over the past couple decades, the INC’s political fortunes have sputtered. Both parties have arrived to employing coalition building as a political tool – but for vastly different reasons: one uses it as a crutch, the other as a springboard. The Progressive Alliance was hammered by the broadside defeat delivered by voters in 2014 at the hands of a flailing INC. Nevertheless, fresh statewide victories in late 2018 fueled newfound confidence in the INC. Perhaps their positive fortune can be sustained, but the INC and its allies have a steep uphill climb to become relevant again.

Because localized third-parties have become especially prominent in recent years, the relative power of the BJP and INC has waned. Concurrently, the struggle over hotly contested districts, seats that are indispensable to achieve majority rule, is ever-present. The BJP’s historic 2014 victory launched the party into power, but unfulfilled campaign pledges and the exceptional nature of incumbency in India promise renewed competition.  Take Uttar Pradesh, a state in India’s northeast region, for example. Home to over 200 million people and the most single-member Parliamentary districts in the country, Uttar Pradesh is decisive to configuring any government. When the state’s 2014 vote went overwhelmingly BJP, the party catapulted into power upon seizing 73 of Uttar Pradesh’s 80 seats. Recent polling suggests the BJP is likely to fall from its prior meteoric performance in the state. This is significant because the state is the crown jewel of Indian politics because of its bellwether propensity. Uttar Pradesh’s massive population, competitive districts, and legacy for producing prime ministers enshrines its status as the foremost political prize.

The chief issue affecting India’s 2019 elections is the state of the economy. India’s stellar economic growth rate has been slightly down of late, but more significantly, the availability of high-quality employment is nearly absent. India’s unemployment rate recently spiked to a 40-year peak, even as Modi promised the creation of 10 million new jobs during the 2014 campaign. It’s unclear that mark can be reached. Moreover, jobs that are presently available within the government of India have been left unoccupied. Demographically speaking, India’s burgeoning youth population is increasingly unable to enter the labor force, which may lead to societal unrest and, potentially, generational unraveling. Structural inequality is aggravating the fierce tension between the economy’s benefactors and underprivileged populations. A new report released by Oxfam highlights the staggering disparities associated with the Indian economy: the top one percent possess over 50 percent of the nation’s wealth, whereas the bottom 60 percent control less than 5 percent of the pie. India is an embattled society that exhibits tremendous growth with scarce economic opportunity. This divergence is perhaps too systematic for one politician to quell, but irrespective of his ability to deliver, Modi’s premiership hinges on the prevailing economic landscape.

To circumvent the economic issue, Modi’s BJP has stimulated religious fervor nationwide to shore up support. Late last year, the party encouraged a massive Hindu-led march in Delhi demanding the construction of a Hindu temple in the city of Ayodhya. For centuries, Muslims worshipped at a mosque in the city, but in 1992, a zealous Hindu mob destroyed it. The BJP is notorious for pandering to Hindu ultra-nationalists and exploiting minority populations to the animosity of the religious majority. They have blatantly fueled conspiracy theories about Muslims usurping land, renamed public spaces in a radical Hindu-centric manner, and falsely accused Muslim men of coercing Hindu women to Islam. Majoritarian politics is commonplace amongst governments with little else momentum, but the BJP’s rendition of it is utterly toxic. Healthy democracies thrive on tolerance, respect, and durable minority rights. Corroding democracy for electoral advantage undermines institutional integrity and confidence in government. Modi could choose the higher road; instead, pitting countrymen against countrymen is the utilitarian route of preference.

Air strikes are another hot-button subject matter forming the election’s narrative. Modi struck back against Pakistan for a suicide bombing executed in Kashmir by Jaish-e-Muhammad, a Pakistani-based terrorist organization. The attacks rallied Indian patriotism across all castes firmly behind the Prime Minister. His saber rattling, coming amid the world’s most volatile nuclear relationship, is a ploy for distraction from domestic weakness ahead of the elections. Polls confirm the decision enhanced Modi’s standing, as opposition parties have backpedaled on critiques regarding national security. Utilizing India’s arch rival to amplify domestic support is a valuable maneuver for the BJP, but such repeated tactics can be especially scarring on Indo-Pakistani relations.

India faces a crucial decision. The 2019 election will shape domestic priorities, cultural tensions, and international affairs for the budding superpower’s next five years. But ultimately, this election will determine the country’s defining character and approach to democracy. As the world welcomes the modernization of emerging nations, India has rich potential to strengthen liberal democracy globally by its example and goodwill. A stable, prosperous India can lift all its people from the throes of poverty and boldly stride into the crux of the 21st century with confidence, inclusion, and peace.

The citizens of India shall soon decide their destiny.

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