Asia House is partnering with the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute to keep you up-to-date on the Indian Elections 2019. Read their latest analysis on the largest democratic exercise in the world below.
What we know
India enters its last full week of campaigning. On Sunday voters went to the polls in 59 constituencies, including the capital Delhi, as well as in the other northern states of Haryana, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Despite returning only seven seats to the Lok Sabha, Delhi has been an important battleground, mainly because of the failure of the Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress Party to agree on a seat sharing alliance to counter Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Most commentators expect the BJP to do well from its opponents’ failure.
Elections continue to be closely fought in West Bengal, which, because it returns 42 seats to the Lok Sabha, has been a target state for the BJP, seeking to make up its expected losses in the Hindi heartland. No love has been lost between the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (of the TMC) and the BJP and, as we have seen in previous phases of the election, this has led to more lethal violence (the responsibility for which is being hotly contested).
Elections were also held in Bhopal on Sunday, where the controversial BJP candidate, Pragya Thakur, out on bail (she has been charged with being part of a terrorist act that killed six people after a bomb was placed near a mosque), is contesting against a Congress former Chief Minister of the state. Her candidature has been seen as the BJP’s success in changing the discourse of India further against minority rights. The BJP’s continuing communalisation of the campaign led The Economist to describe ‘Agent Orange’ Modi as ‘a threat to democracy’.
What we think
These elections have confirmed concerns about the status of democracy in India (in 2018 a prominent international measure of democracy noted that democracy was in decline in India). Previous briefings discussed concerns over Electronic Voting Machines and the fact that the BJP has opposed measures to ‘mix’ the ballots of individual voting booths to make it more difficult to identify areas that voted for or against the governing party. Mukulika Banerjee claims that these elections are free but not fair, citing concerns about the partisan nature of the Electoral Commission’s decisions, as well as the introduction of the electoral bonds that have favoured the ruling party.
The BJP continues to peddle its narrative of national security, with Modi claiming as he campaigned in Chandigarh: “India is choosing development over dynasty. India is not choosing those who lack courage to take down terrorists, but those who are willing to enter the homes of terrorists and kill them”. The shift to serious campaigning in Delhi in the sixth phase and the Punjab in the seventh phase, the only Sikh majority state in India, has seen the BJP increase the communalisation of its campaign, but in a different manner than previously. BJP leaders sought to remind voters of Congress complicity in the anti-Sikh riots that followed the assassination of Indira Gandhi – Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother. A senior Congress leader, responding to these charges, who commented ‘so what‘ (although he later claimed he was not proficient in Hindi and had used the wrong words) was criticised by BJP and Sikh leaders. Rahul Gandhi immediately condemned the remarks of his party member, but the issue continues to be used against the Congress campaign in the Punjab.
The personalisation of the campaign continues, with Modi seeking to belittle Rahul Gandhi (the latest allegation concerned Rahul’s father, former PM Rajiv Gandhi, taking his young son on an alleged ‘vacation’ on an Indian warship). Although Congress has failed to adequately challenge the BJP on the campaign trail by consistently hitting it on jobs and rural distress, this election has seen Rahul Gandhi become a more effective campaigner, raising hopes among its supporters that the Grand Old Party of Indian politics is not written off. In an interview this week he portrayed a more mature image, rejecting Modi’s personal attacks on him and the Gandhi family.
Things to watch out for next week
The seventh and final round of voting will be held on Sunday 19 May. For the first time in this election, voters in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Chandigarh will cast their votes. The Sikh political party, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), is a BJP ally (in large part because of poor relations with the Congress as a result of the politics of Indira Gandhi in the Punjab in the early 1980s and the role of the Congress in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi). But the SAD is still beset with its legacy of poor governance in the state and polls before the election predicted that Congress would do well in the state.
With the results due on Thursday 23 May, and no single party expected to secure an overall majority, the Indian press this week has been awash with reports of the courting of regional parties by national parties (and of regional parties by other regional parties). However, the likelihood is of a national party (probably the BJP) forming a governing coalition of regional and identity based parties (such as the Shiv Sena). A predicted scenario is one where the BJP is the largest party but only manages to win around 180 seats (down from its 282 in 2014). In such a scenario, Sidharth Bhatia questions whether Modi can retain his hold on the prime ministership. Exit polls will be released after the polls have closed on 19 May but we will have to wait until 23 May to see whether the BJP has managed to gain enough seats outside the Hindi heartland for Modi to avoid such a fate.
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*This article has been modified in line with Asia House editorial guidelines.