4 Questions: A Guide to the Indian Election

Indian voters queue to cast their vote at a polling station during India's general election in Aligarh.

Indian voters queue to cast their vote at a polling station during India's general election in Aligarh, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on April 18, 2019 in the second phase of the mammoth Indian elections. More than 157 million of the 900 million electorate are eligible to cast ballots on the second of seven days of voting in the world's biggest election. (Photo by Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images)

This article is co-authored by ASPI Associate Director Anubhav Gupta and ASPI intern Kendra Brock.

Since April 11, Indians across the country have been heading to the polls to vote in the 2019 general elections. The results of the five-week election, which ends May 19, will determine the power brokers in New Delhi for the next five years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hope to stave off a feisty opposition, led by the Indian National Congress, to retain control for another term. Here’s everything you need to know about the elections and their potential impact.

Why does the election matter outside India?

Come May 23, 1.3 billion Indians will be eagerly awaiting the election results, but they won’t be the only ones paying attention. As India has transformed into the world’s seventh largest economy and a crucial global power, its politics increasingly attract worldwide attention.

The international business community will watch the elections closely because India, as the fastest growing major economy in the world, has become an important engine for growth. Foreign companies are increasingly investing in India, with FDI to India surpassing that to China for the first time in 20 years. Although the Modi government’s record on economic reform has been far from perfect, the market likely considers the current BJP-led government more predictable. Some private sector analysts worry that if the current BJP coalition fails to win an outright majority in parliament (as it did win in 2014), it may find it more difficult to implement further economic reforms. For international businesses, it’s not just about whether Modi wins, but by how much.  

India is unlikely to see a major change in its strategic orientation as a result of the election. That said, Modi has invested more time and political capital in India’s international engagements than perhaps any prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru. In doing so, he has been successful in attracting much needed foreign investment and elevating India’s ties with the United States, Japan, and key countries in the Middle East (the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel). If he does not return to power, the next prime minister may well invest far less energy in India’s outward orientation.

The outcome of the Indian election could also have important repercussions for stability in South Asia and for India’s relations with its rivals Pakistan and China. Modi has acted decisively against both – responding militarily to terrorist attacks from Pakistan and standing up to China on border disputes. The right-wing politics of Modi and the BJP could be a boon in unexpected ways: following recent tensions between India and Pakistan, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said that peace talks with India are more likely under the BJP, as Congress “might be too scared to seek a settlement with Pakistan over Kashmir, fearing a backlash from the right.” On the other hand, Modi’s time in office has seen a rise in public unrest and violence in Kashmir, as well as heightened tensions with China. A coalition government may have difficulty responding decisively in crises but might be more prudent about avoiding escalation.

What issues dominated the campaign?

While security issues became prominent after a terrorist attack in Kashmir in February, the economy was the dominant election issue for much of the campaign. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that although a majority of Indians felt that they were better off financially than 20 years ago, lack of employment opportunities and rising prices were chief concerns for over 70 percent of people surveyed. Modi, who had risen to power through lofty economic promises, was now falling prey to them. As he compared his record to that of the previous government, the opposition pivoted to pit his record against his own promises.

India is doing well macro-economically, but that success is not translating into the rapid GDP growth the country expects, nor the job growth the country needs, especially in rural areas. In February, India’s GDP growth slipped to 6.6 percent, a five-quarter low for India. To make matters worse, an employment survey, which the government tried to block, revealed that the Indian unemployment rate was the highest in at least 45 years. The Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), found that 11 million jobs were lost in 2018 alone, with 83 percent of job losses occurring in rural areas. These numbers severely undermine the BJP and Modi’s claim that they had been good stewards of the Indian economy.

With economic issues center stage, both Congress and the BJP unveiled competing welfare programs aimed at critical voting blocs in the months leading up to the election. The ruling coalition’s interim budget proposed a cash transfer of Rs 6000 ($86) per year to small farmers, while also offering tax cuts to the middle class. The India National Congress responded by proposing a minimum income scheme that would provide Rs 72,000 annually to the poorest 20 percent of families.

In February, just as the opposition was starting to steal the advantage on the economic front, the Pulwama terrorist attack, which killed 44 and injured 70 in Kashmir, injected a second major issue into the campaign trail. Pakistan-based Jaish e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility for the attack, and on February 26 India launched a counter-attack in Balakot, within Pakistan territory, claiming to have struck a JeM facility there. Although later reports suggest that Indian forces may have missed their intended target, the political impact inside India was substantial. Modi used nationalism and the rivalry with Pakistan to shift the tide in his favor just before elections.

Security, already a concern for 65 percent of people surveyed prior to the strike, became a key campaign issue. Modi connected his party with muscular national security, promising that “each drop of tear will be avenged.” A BJP member declared that the Balakot strike would “help us in winning more than 22 Lok Sabha [lower house of parliament] seats.” Although his comment was widely criticized, the polls seem to have borne his prediction out. In a statement regarding their March polls, polling agency CVoter said that “we have seen perhaps for the first-time security issues competing with, and outdoing, a bread and butter issue like employment.” An averaging of March polls predicted a thin majority win for the Modi-led alliance, an improvement from January, when most polls suggested it would fall short.

Why is this Indian general election particularly interesting?

Only India could turn democracy into a tourist attraction. Visitors have flocked to India this year to witness the biggest democratic show on the planet. Why? India’s general elections are famous for the idiosyncrasies and even criminality of some candidates, but they are most remarkable for their sheer size. Each recent iteration has been the largest election in history. Approximately 900 million people over the age of eighteen are eligible to vote, and a majority are expected to actually exercise that right — voting for a field of around 8,000 candidates. This election features 83 million first time voters alone. To accommodate such large numbers, the election is taking place in seven phases over six weeks.

The Indian government invests considerable resources to make it easy to vote. It took 11 million workers six months to lay the groundwork for the immense operation, with nearly 4 million voting machines set up around the country. Six polling officials recently demonstrated India’s commitment to democratic rights by traveling two days to open a poll booth so that a single voter could cast her ballot.  

The complexity of elections in such a large and populous developing country presents inordinate challenges. This year, there are concerns that women and certain minority groups may be significantly underrepresented in the voting rolls. In addition, many of the challenges that confront democracies globally are seen writ large in India, including social media and nationalism. Fake news has been particularly troublesome for India to confront. Although Facebook and WhatsApp have removed problematic political accounts, the misuse of these platforms continues, and India’s election commission is swamped by accusations of election violations. Lessons from India’s election experience with social media may be applied globally. For instance, WhatsApp’s restriction on the number of people a user can forward a message to at a time was first tested in India before it was rolled out worldwide.

These elections are also taking place as nationalism is surging in India, as it is in democracies around the world. The Hindu nationalism that Modi and the BJP espouse has shaped the contours of Indian society and politics over the past five years. While Modi underplayed the Hindu elements of his nationalism in the 2014 campaign, such elements have been a core foundation of his appeal and governance. Unsurprisingly, Islamophobia has reared its ugly head on the campaign trail. This week, India’s election commission temporarily barred Yogi Adityanath, the BJP Chief Minister of India’s most populous state, from the campaign for anti-Muslim comments. The religious divide on display this election season will persist far after the votes have been counted.  

Who is expected to win?

In the aftermath of the India-Pakistan crisis, an average of four major polls suggested that the BJP-led coalition will win by a thin margin. Modi was well positioned at the start of voting, but experienced observers will know that it can be a fool’s errand to make predictions about Indian elections. Modi remains popular in India and if the election were a referendum on him alone, he would likely prevail. But Indian elections are rarely so simple. Regional level parties and anti-incumbency at the state and local levels are just two aspects of the Indian election that make predictions especially tricky.

The power of state parties poses a challenge to reelection for the BJP. Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of The Print argues that “there is no such thing as a truly national party in India anymore,” with even larger parties like BJP and Congress only holding a regional clustering of states. While this dynamic has proved particularly difficult to Congress as it tries to form a unified opposition, the BJP has also faced difficulty in attracting partners for a coalition as it faces a narrow margin of error.

As Milan Vaishnav has noted, “incumbency is something of a double-edged sword in India,” with incumbent parties often at a disadvantage. The challenges India faces are vast, making it impossible for any government to transform a country in just five years. Moreover, unlike the opposition, the incumbent government can be held accountable to its own promises. Opposition parties have been able to call the BJP coalition out for not making progress on specific campaign promises, something the BJP cannot do in return.

The 2004 Indian election should serve as a warning sign for those making predictions but also to the current BJP government. That year, an effective BJP government led by a popular prime minister was expected to return to power but was dealt a surprising loss instead. There are some similarities between Modi’s ‘New India’ campaign and the failed ‘India Shining’ campaign led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, not least among which is a rural discontent with the BJP’s economic performance.

As much as we might expect a Modi and BJP victory, Indian voters should never be taken for granted. We will only know the result once all 900 million votes are counted.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Anubhav Gupta

Anubhav Gupta is Associate Director for the Asia Society Policy Institute. He is based in New York.