The political landscape of India has changed. In 2014 Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP was the first party since Congress under Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 to win a majority of its own. In 2019 the BJP returns to power with its own majority – a first such return since Indira Gandhi. More than that, the BJP and its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) surpasses its result from five years ago, and it has widened its footprint beyond its previous core area in the “Hindi Belt” of northern India, and is now truly a national party. The result in 2019 is a landslide, and Prime Minister Modi will lead India for another five years.
The contrast over less than ten years is startling. When I came to India at the start of my five-year tenure in 2012, I was told by basically everyone I talked to that India would always have to be governed by a coalition government. Also, the national parties, both Congress and the BJP, were seen as slowly loosing in relevance when compared to strong regional and State based parties.
It is a safe truism that the outcome of a national Indian election is a surprise to experts and analysts. It was true in 2004 and in 2009, and the magnitude of the BJP victory was seen as a surprise in 2014. The reasons for the difficulties in predictions are obvious: the sheer size of the election, the first-past the post election system and the young electorate – 50% of India’s population is under 25. And, not to forget, a more suave and agile electorate than many observers might assume.
Now, the BJP and Modi have done it again. In the 2019 election the BJP was generally expected to do well, but the majority of those daring enough to express a prediction, assumed that it would be difficult for the government to secure a second term with its own majority. Expectations by many were that the BJP would have to build a broader coalition, beyond the NDA.
Before the election, the broad view of the opposition was that it lacked common purpose other than toppling the Government and that it had lackluster performance and weak leadership under the Gandhi family. A new Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was therefore seen as improbable, as was the often talked about “third front” coalition of regional parties.
The result is a disaster beyond expectations for the former leading party of the country. At the time of writing, Congress has secured a dismal 51 seats in the Lokh Sabha, and 80 for the UPA. The numbers compare to 302 for the BJP, and a stunning 349 for the NDA. Congress’ leader, and the opposition’s front figure, Rahul Gandhi, was defeated in Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, but secured a seat in Parliament through his second nomination in Wayanad in Kerala. A few more seats than in 2014, and a remaining hold for Congress in Punjab, Kerala and, with its regional ally the DMK, in Tamil Nadu, is a small consolation.
The BJP succeeded in making the election to a large degree a referendum on the Prime Minister, a choice between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. In this competition, Gandhi and the Congress party came out short. BJP’s focus on a popular “muscular” Prime Minister, on national security after the Pulwana terror attack in Kashmir, and on Indian national (Hindu) identity paid off. And obviously, judging from the result, BJP’s credibility as a modernizing force remains, in spite of a mixed record in 2014 – 2019.
It is no small feat of the Prime Minister and the BJP to overcome anti-incumbency in 2019 to secure a second term control over the Lok Sabha. This is especially so, since the NDA government has under-delivered compared to the grand promises the BJP did in the 2014 campaign, under the election slogan “Achhe din, aane waale hain”, or “Achhe din” in short, “Good days are coming”.
The reforms and achievements made during 2014 – 2019 should certainly not be underestimated though, particularly when compared to the second term of the UPA government 2009 – 2014. GST, diesel price deregulation, liberalized foreign direct investment rules, the new bankruptcy code, infrastructure development, financial inclusion etc. send a message. Growth, at 7+ %, has not been up to potential, and not what the government had hoped, but is still the strongest of any large world economy. Job creation was a disappointment in the NDA government’s first term however.
In 2014 the BJP’s success was largely attributed to a successful coalition between the party’s traditional Hindu-nationalistic core and its support in the modern, younger, urban electorate, longing for reforms, growth and jobs after the drab performance of the Congress-led UPA (“United Progressive Alliance”) government in its second term. We can now see that this coalition remains intact, in spite of a campaign where the BJP has been seen as leaning more towards Hindu nationalist identity issues.
Let us now take a look at one of the most bitter general election campaigns in India’s independent existence, before we attempt to look into the future, what this may mean for governance, for policy and development, for necessary reforms – where does India go from here?
During the final phases of the campaign and voting, Time Magazine called Prime Minister Modi “Divider-in-Chief”, and the American magazine received an expected riposte from the PM. The theme of the Time article was also on the polarization of politics in India however, and it said of Congress that it had little to offer more than the dynastic principle.
Foreign observers have certainly not been alone in pointing to the increasing divisiveness of Indian politics. In what seems to be a sad international trend, the standard of the election debate has sunk to new lows. Congress MP, author, former Union Minister of State Shashi Tharoor has called the election “a battle for India’s soul”. The Prime Minister, possibly in a response to accusations regarding corruption in the Rafale deal, said that Rahul Gandhi’s father, former PM Rajiv Gandhi, died as “Corrupt Number One”. Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal, has talked of an emergency-like situation in the country, and has said, “stop this fascism and terror” at a rally.
Obviously, there have been problematic incidents during the campaign, but this has to be looked at in the light of the enormous size of the exercise. India has 900 million eligible voters, out of which more than 67 per cent voted – equal voting shares for men and women, another first in India’s history. What really matters is that the robustness of Indian democracy has been proven again.
There have been accusations from the opposition against how things were run, but former President Pranab Mukherjee has come out in strong support for the Election Commission, and said, “It was perfect conduct of the elections”. In the calm after the storm, let us expect that more of normalcy will return to the always-lively political discussion in the world’s largest democracy.
India now has a Government with an exceptionally strong mandate in Parliament. With its own majority in Lok Sabha, and with increasing numbers in the Upper House, the Raya Sabha, it has a mandate for both governance and legislation not seen for more than a quarter century. The Prime Minister personally also has an extraordinarily strong mandate in the country, and in his own party.
After an election there is relief, euphoria and grand plans for the future among the victors, and the markets reacted with a celebratory rally. To paraphrase Arnold Toynbee however, governing a country is just “one damned thing after another”. There is always a long list of worries and troubles that awaits a new government, and the period ahead for Narendra Modi’s and the BJP’s second term is no exception. The BJP’s first term saw a relatively benign international economic environment, but neither fuel prices nor the international trading system may remain as favorable. Internally there are warning signals both as to food prices and as to consumer demand. In a deteriorating international security climate, India finds itself in an increasingly difficult strategic position vis-à-vis China. The relation to Pakistan is always perilous.
It is now crucial that the Government utilizes this mandate for the continuation of reform with effects at state and municipality level, for investment and job-creation, for alleviating poverty, for anti-corruption, for open and good governance, and for a steady hand in India’s foreign and security policy. Proudness for the nation, its culture and history, need to be combined with respect for the kaleidoscope of origins, faiths, languages and traditions that is India.
Harald Sandberg, Senior Executive Advisor to the Sweden-India Business Council, Ambassador to India 2012-2017