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The World’s Largest Democracy is Getting Ready for National Elections

Illustration: Eva Dinino

There’s a lot at stake for the country’s more than 800 million registered voters. With 29 states, 7 smaller union territories and more than 1.3 billion people who speak 22 official languages and many more recognized languages, India is getting ready for the 2019 election cycle, which could end up being its most important and the world’s most expensive.

Like many countries around the world, India is going through an identity crisis. Election time is rightfully an important time for democracies no matter how the country is doing or what it’s going through. However, some have argued that the 2019 Indian National Election isn’t just another election: it could set the tone for what India stands for, who it wants to include and what it is.

How’s India doing right now? The answer depends on who you ask. The current government is being led by Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Narendra Modi. The BJP is ideologically a party for high-caste Indian elites so historically, they have not fared well the majority of India’s population. One reason that Modi was able to come to power in the past was by invoking nationalist sentiments of the country’s Hindu population. This turned huge numbers of low-caste or poor Hindu voters to Modi’s side by creating a common enemy.

An equally valid reason that Modi came to power in 2014 is that he ran on the promise to revitalize an increasingly dull Indian economy. Modi hails from the state of Gujarat, where he served as the Chief Minister. Gujarat, under Modi, achieved considerable economic growth after adopting a more business friendly model. At the time, Modi’s economic arguments, namely his promise of replicating what he did in Gujarat on a national scale, seemed credible.

Modi’s government is in its fifth year and the value of what they have achieved or done is being debated, clouded heavily by perceptions and social identities. The government came to power with over 600 big and small promises and at best, some were partially fulfilled while others remained largely untouched. Some of his programs such as the Clean India campaign and women empowerment campaigns have been initiated, but the achievement of their goals are still largely a dream for the country.

As far as the economy goes, Modi fared well if one trusts the numbers. On a macro-level, the country’s GDP, inflation and internal and external deficit have largely stabilized in part owing to some liberalization of foreign direct investment (FDI) under Modi. The government can also be praised for the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST).  Though it might have been a minor inconvenience to the general public, it aimed to make India a single market. The actual implantation has been a messy process, given the institutional change it requires, but was nonetheless a much needed reform.

A less than ideal reform was the infamous demonetization scheme in 2016, when the majority of currency was withdrawn in an effort to take black money out of circulation. There has still been no objective analysis of the impact, but the sector hit hardest by the move were lower middle class and lower class citizens. In one sentence, India as a whole may have developed economically as Modi promised, but most of its people have not: India’s at-large development is still coming at the expense of its rural and poor populations.

While Modi’s economic impact is debatable, his social impact is certainly not. There has been an undeniable rise in Hindu-nationalist groups’ ability to influence society, especially in the “Hindi Belt” region which includes some northern and central states with very dense populations. Various religious minorities and lower-caste Hindus have been attacked for their way of life, threatening the very idea of an inclusive India. This is evidenced by the nationalist groups’ reactions to journalists and media personnel that fear social sanctions or worse, criminal cases, when they point out any shortcoming of Modi’s government.

Typically noted as a diverse media by many measures, international groups have now noted that India’s press rights that are constitutionally guaranteed aren’t being held up. Whether it is Modi or his opposition, whoever is in power next has a crucial role in turning the rhetoric around before the social fabric of the country falls apart completely.

Coming to the present, how do elections work in India? With about three times as more registered voters than there are people in the United States, Indian national elections are seemingly a celebration of democracy. However, they are considerably messy. There are two houses of the parliament, the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha. The party holding the majority of seats in the Lok Sabha will get to form the next government.

However, with over 8000 national and regional parties, major parties will usually form coalitions with smaller parties. Otherwise, no party would be able to form a majority. Typically, there is a BJP run coalition and Indian National Congress run coalition. In the upcoming elections, the Indian people will vote for a minister of parliament (MP) for their own constituency of the 543 constituencies over 9 phases, depending on where their constituency is. The Prime Minister might be chosen from either the upper or lower house and so, they must contest in elections in a particular constituency.

A look to the near future: what are the predictions and how will the elections change the country? India is a very electorally volatile state so it is still very hard to tell what is going to happen until the votes have all been counted. Right now, the main candidates are PM Modi and Congress’ Rahul Gandhi. It is expected that Congress will suffer even more losses in the Lok Sabha this upcoming election, but again pollsters don’t exactly have a habit of predicting right in Indian elections.

Modi is using the recent terrorist attacks in Pulwama to once again tug at nationalist sentiments and market that as his strong anti-terrorist strategy. Given the recency of the incident, it is probably fresh in people’s minds and may very well have an impact on the results. However, in the last Rajya Sabha election, BJP lost three states where agriculture is an important industry. A lot of farmers are growing increasingly upset with the government due to falling crop prices. To add to the frustration, the number of farming jobs and jobs in general have declined, which is a major promise that Modi failed to keep. The next government will have significant implications for the economy. People will be voting with a lot at stake.

These elections are important because regardless of the result, they will create some sort of history for the country. The elections are going to be the people’s response to the various policies enacted from 2014 until now. They are going to important in deciding the future of BJP in India. If BJP wins, this could have important implications for the country’s social fabric. However, Congress’ Rahul Gandhi lacks the credibility in many eyes to lead the country and is deemed incapable to patch up the country. Much of the country is also not willing to forget the party’s corruption scandals from the last decade.

The unlikely scenario that numerous smaller parties form a coalition and win a majority is also not ideal for obvious reasons: there would be too many internal factions, making good governance impossible in an already divided country. Overall, 1.3 billion lives are at stake and it’s an election worth following. Voting will take place through April and the results will be announced on May 11. Coalitions and the next government will form after the results are announced.