Indian Elections: Unravelling the biggest festival of democracy

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“So, much of the next election will be about which party can offer the best economic prospects to the whole of Indian society, and especially the very poorest. But the politics are very complex.”  

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Within the next few days, India will start to vote to elect its seventeenth Prime Minister. This will be the largest election the world has seen, with 900 million people eligible to vote—bigger than the population of Europe and Australia combined.  The massive electoral exercise will be conducted in seven phases from 11 April to 19 May 2019 at 1 million polling stations. Votes will be counted on 23 May and results will be declared on the same day. 

India’s lower house (known as Lok Sabha) has 543 elected seats. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, currently holds a majority in the Lok Sabha, governing as part of a broader coalition called the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The BJP-led NDA is battling the main opposition Congress, along with a host of regional parties, for re-election. 

The BJP swept to power in 2014 with promises about jobs and economic growth: its election catchphrase was sabka saath, sabka vikas, or “all together, development for all”. Jobs and growth were sorely needed. Given India’s demographics, around 1 million job-seekers will enter the labour force every month for the next three decades. Roughly 85% of India’s workforce is in the so-called “unorganised” sector—the traditional activities of agricultural and informal manual jobs. Productivity and pay in this sector is chronically low. In the “organised” sector, pay and productivity are significantly better; but jobs there are scarce (and have in fact decreased in number since 2014). The result is huge inequality: those with organised jobs enjoy a comparatively good standard of living; those with unorganised jobs face some of the worst living conditions in the world.

India’s growth rate over the last 30 years has been impressive: among the top 12 fastest in the world. But such is the amount of catch-up that needs to be done that even an average growth rate of 6.6% since 2014—a figure that most Western economies view with envy—is a disappointment for India. The divide within Indian society has in fact worsened since 2014: average income per capita has risen by a third, but the income of low-skilled workers has fallen by 22%. 

Signature initiatives by the Indian government have not always helped. The move just over two years ago to remove from circulation 86% of India’s currency was intended to reduce the size of the illegal, or black economy. The Central Bank report suggests this exercise helped to destroy only £1bn of illegal money against the government’s hope of £329bn. It certainly managed to catch the University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International) out: not that he was involved with the black economy, but he did have a number of bank notes in his wallet that suddenly were worthless. Far more importantly, it hit the poorest the hardest, since they are the ones most dependent on cash receipts.So, much of the next election will be about which party can offer the best economic prospects to the whole of Indian society, and especially the very poorest. But the politics are very complex.

Many commentators view the general election as a sum total of performance outcomes in India’s 29 States and 7 Union Territories. India follows a first-past-the-post election system, where a candidate is elected from a constituency if he/she receives the highest number of votes. The system gives considerable power to regional parties with solid strength in their geographical bases who can yield disproportionate influence on the overall outcome. As an example, in the 2014 general election, Congress got 44 seats with a 19% vote share, whereas a regional party in Southern India, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), got 37 seats with just 3.3% vote share. Hence alliances with regional parties are critical and having the right partners may well determine who forms the government.

The BJP is building its campaign around the theme ‘Modi versus All’, promising strong leadership and the avoidance of anarchy if re-elected. It is highlighting various social welfare schemes introduced by the BJP, most notably: measures to curb black money; steps to check inflation; free medical insurance up to £5,500 per annuum for the poor (Ayushman Bharat scheme); reservations for economically-backward sections of society; free cooking gas for poor households; a hike in state-procured prices of basic crops from farmers; and providing electricity to all villages.

The opposition is highlighting issues of rising unemployment, agricultural distress, and how wrong policies have crippled the economy. It has also been attacking the government over allegations of corruption and cronyism in a €7.87 billion defence contract to procure fighter jets from France. It gained momentum in November when removing the BJP from power in the state elections of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.

But while opposition parties are talking about a united front, there is no clear decision on who will lead the battle against BJP-led NDA. And the suicide attack in Indian-administered Kashmir, which killed 40 Indian soldiers, followed by India’s airstrikes against military camps inside Pakistan, seems to have tilted the equation in BJP’s favour. Modi’s approval ratings and popularity have soared.

Given this complex and varied electoral landscape, only time will tell whether issues of nationalism will dominate joblessness in the course of a long election. Another distinctive feature in this year’s election is that, for the first time, more women are likely to vote than men. Given that one in every five seats are won or lost by a margin of fewer than 38,000 votes, women could play a decisive role in selecting the next Prime Minister of India. 

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