Asia Research Institute

Indian Elections Weekly Briefing - 23 May 2019

India Votes


Welcome to your seventh weekly briefing covering the elections in India. This week we digest the election results and look at what this now means to India. If you have enjoyed these weekly briefings, we would love to hear from you. Please send your comments to 

What we know

At the time of writing, not all results have been confirmed but the outcome is clear, the BJP government has surpassed all expectations, include those of the exit polls, but perhaps not that of party president Amit Shah who had claimed the BJP would do even better than in 2014. They will now form India’s next government and will do so with an increased majority, both in terms of the votes gained and the seats secured. The BJP has secured 243 seats and is ahead in another 60, giving it a projected total of 303 – a notable increase from the 282 from 2014 (the Lok Sabha has 543 elected seats). This result is a huge turnaround from the situation six months ago when the BJP lost several state elections.  After those results became clear, Modi pledged to deliver a strong and inclusive India.
It was not only an excellent result for the BJP, but a very poor one for the Congress. They had secured only 39 seats and were leading in 13 others, and Congress Party President Rahul Gandhi had to concede defeat in one of the two seats he contested, in Amethi in the north Indian state in Uttar Pradesh. He lost to sitting BJP Rajya Sabha MP and party spokesperson Smriti Irani, who had fought him in the same constituency in 2014. Her victory was especially symbolic as members of the Gandhi family had represented Amethi since 1980 (although Rahul Gandhi was comfortably elected in another constituency he contested in Wayanad, Kerala, in south India).

In terms of their campaign, perhaps the BJP’s biggest gain – symbolically and numerically - has been in West Bengal where they are projected to gain 18 out of 42 seats (having won only 2 last time). The BJP focused its efforts on making inroads into this state, an important one because of the 42 seats it returns to the Lok Sabha. Both Modi and Amit Shah campaigned extensively in this state, which also saw violence in every phase of the election. This was for many years a Communist Party-governed state until the current Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her party the Trinamul Congress were elected at the state level. That the BJP managed to secure so many seats in this non-Hindi speaking state, and one whose chief minister has so vociferously opposed the BJP’s majoritarian nationalism rhetoric, demonstrates the power of the political message the BJP have projected.

However, there were limits to the BJP’s win: In south India in the state of Tamil Nadu it was Congress ally the DMK who are on track to win a majority of seats in the state (23/38) and in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana regional parties also dominated the results. The YSR Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh, formed from a splinter of the Congress party in 2011, is projected to take the overwhelming majority of seats in the state (22/25), whereas another regional party just about managed a majority (9/17 seats). The BSP has stemmed some of the BJP tide in UP, having won nine seats and leading in another (which is 10 more than they managed in 2014), out of a possible 80 in the state. Their ally, the Samajwadi Party, added one more seat to their 2014 tally to claim five seats, but they would have hoped to do much better.

What we think

There are many explanations for the BJP’s success. The most prominent among them centres on the BJP’s successful use of the national security narrative, as we pointed to in previous briefings. The combination of the narrative of India’s need for a strong leader, and the projection of Narendra Modi as that strong leader (he restyled himself as a Chowkidar – a watchman) in an increasingly presidential campaign, was a powerful one.
But just as important has been the role of money in the campaign – the BJP benefitted enormously from the introduction of electoral bonds. These allowed anonymous donations to political parties, and the BJP had received 95% of them. This allowed the party to outspend their opponents, dominating the traditional and social media space, particularly in some states where the campaign was stretched across all seven phases.
This space was used to project the BJP’s political narrative, and also to communalise the campaign. The success of BJP candidates such as Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, controversial because of her alleged involvement in a terror attack against Muslims in 2008, demonstrates the way in which the politics of the acceptable has changed. Unlike the 2014 campaign, when the BJP was careful to project the ‘development’ narrative, communal politics have been used by prominent BJP figures during this campaign. Political attitudes in India have shifted rapidly over the last few years, with many more Indians (even non-BJP supporters) favouring the Hindu majoritarian narrative.

What to expect

The Indian stock market rose sharply as the results rolled in.  However, Modi’s government faces real economic challenges in its next term. It is unclear how it will reduce the unemployment rate and reduce the rural distress that gave the BJP such an electoral scare in the state elections in late 2018. We are likely to see a renewed focus on infrastructure projects. The BJP’s manifesto made some ambitious promises such as reducing poverty to single-digit percentage of families below the poverty line, as well as in health, housing, drinking water, and sanitation. They also promised to address youth aspirations and provide skills and training. The big concern will be that the government pursues many of the policies that were so divisive in the last government, related to cow protection, the creation of a uniform civil code (which entails removing the personal laws of Muslims and Christians) and the amendment of the Citizenship Laws to give preferential treatment to ‘Indian’ religions such as Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. Their adoption in a country with 180 million Muslims would augur ill for Indian democracy. Many voters have given PM Modi another five years to make a difference, and they may not be so forgiving next time.

Thank you for reading. 

With best wishes,

Katharine Adeney and Carole Spary
UoN Asia Research Institute

Posted on Friday 24th May 2019

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