National elections to elect a new lower house of parliament (Lok Sabha) in India begin on Thursday (11 April) and will continue for the next six weeks. The votes of the world’s largest electorate – there are about 900 million eligible voters – will finally be counted on 23 May.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is widely expected to win another term in office at the head of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition of parties.  

However, in recent months the Congress Party, led by Rahul Gandhi, has shown renewed signs of life after five years in the doldrums since the 2014 elections. This was when the party, as well as the United Progressive Alliance coalition it leads, was reduced to a parliamentary rump. This, along with the emergence of an anti-BJP alliance by two regional parties in the key northern state of Uttar Pradesh, has fuelled speculation that the BJP could win substantially fewer seats. This would leave it more dependent on finding coalition partners if it is to lead the next government.  

The main contenders

The previously tired Gandhi ‘brand’ appears to have regained some of its lustre. Meanwhile, in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, led by former rivals Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati, have teamed up to oppose the BJP. The BJP won 71 out of 80 seats there in 2014 in alliance with a range of caste-based parties. Mayawati is a revered figure amongst those identifying with the lowest Castes (officially known as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes).

Modi’s chances

Modi remains the BJP’s biggest electoral asset. He is a powerful and energetic campaigner. He has not hesitated to play the ‘national security’ card in the election campaign. He used the February 2019 attack on the security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir by the Pakistan-based armed militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad, in which at least 46 soldiers died, to assert his credentials.

Modi quickly declared that he held Pakistan responsible for the attack. It triggered air operations by the two countries that for a while threatened to spiral out of control. Tensions between India and Pakistan remain high. He asserted those credentials again at the end of March after India destroyed one of its own space satellites by launching a missile strike against it, announcing that the country was now a “space superpower”.

Critics argue that anti-Pakistan feeling has also been used by the BJP since 2014 to stoke suspicion and mistrust of India’s Muslim minority at home, leading to a growing sense among some Hindus that Muslims are an ‘enemy within’, resulting in a rise in violent attacks. In addition, they charge that independent institutions supposed to defend and uphold the rule of law and respect for human rights have been undermined over Modi’s five years in office. They claim his majoritarian nationalism often has a decidedly ‘illiberal’ character.

Economic incentives

Modi’s victory in 2014 was founded above all on his promise to revive an ailing economy. But there has been a rising feeling that he has underdelivered. The annual headline growth figures look reasonably impressive, but peer behind them and the evidence is mixed. Farmers’ incomes have stagnated and unemployment has risen.

The sudden removal of 500 and 1,000 Rupee notes from circulation in 2016 – known as ‘demonetisation’ – damaged small and medium-sized businesses. At the top of the income-scale, some corporate leaders complain there have not been the macro-economic reforms they hoped for.

Congress has sought to exploit this perceived weakness by promising to introduce a universal basic income scheme if elected. The BJP has challenged the feasibility of the idea. However, the party is not immune to what has been called “competitive populism”: the offering to the poor of what academics Pradeep Chhibber and Rahual Verma call “goodies” to win votes. It is promising increased direct cash transfers to farmers if re-elected.

Ideological battles

These developments have led some commentators to describe the electoral battlefield in India as dominated by ‘pork-barrel’ politics. But on past evidence there are no guarantees that offering goodies will deliver votes. Indeed, other experts insist that important ideological battles with deep historical roots continue to be fought in Indian politics today and are much more influential than patronage and clientelism. In a 2018 book, Chhibber and Verma assert that in a multi-ethnic society like India:

‘the most important debates center on the extent to which the state should dominate society, regulate social norms and redistribute private property (in what we call the politics of statism) as well as on whether and how the state should accommodate the needs of various marginalized groups and protect minority rights from assertive majoritarian tendencies (in what we call the politics of recognition).’

They go on to say that in 2014 the BJP created an “unprecedented coalition of social groups […] energising its traditional base of voters (who oppose the politics of recognition)”, but also mobilising voters “who wanted to limit the politics of statism.” For writer and activist Achin Vanaik, this success has ushered in a period of BJP hegemony which could last for some time.

Five years on, the unprecedented coalition identified by Chhibber and Verma may be fraying somewhat, but there are few signs of its wholesale collapse. Indian elections can spring big surprises – witness the BJP’s wholly unexpected defeat in 2004. In the unlikely event of a similar seismic shock this time around, underlying public discontent about the economy will probably be the main reason, just as it was then.

Further reading

About the author: Jon Lunn is a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, specialising in international affairs.