Welcome to your third weekly briefing covering the elections in India. We provide you with a brief summary of events, expert analysis, and what to expect in the coming weeks. Enjoy - and don't hesitate to get in touch!
What we know
This week was the biggest week of polling to date, with 211 seats polled - 39% of the total Lok Sabha. On Thursday 18th April voters went to the polls in 97 constituencies from 13 states. All bar one of Tamil Nadu’s seats went to the polls. The 39th, Vellore, was not polled due to a large amount of cash being recovered from a candidate’s office a few days ahead of the election. The turnout in the state was higher than India’s national average – at 72% - possibly as a result of the multiple contests within the state. Despite the Chief Electoral Officer recommending re-polling in 10 polling booths, and parties alleging irregularities and violence in others, at the time of writing a decision had still to be taken. The average estimated turnout across all states polled was 69%, the same as Phase 1 of voting.
A few days later, on Tuesday 23rd April, voters went to the polls in a further 115 constituencies across 14 states. All of the 26 seats in Gujarat in west India (Narendra Modi’s home state) and the 20 in Kerala (in the south) were polled. Tuesday’s poll was relatively peaceful although a 56 year old voter was stabbed to death in West Bengal. Voter turnout in Phase 3 was slightly lower than previous Phases, at 66%. Phases 2 and 3 concluded voting in the south of the country, including for Rahul Gandhi’s (second) constituency of Wayanad (candidates can stand in multiple constituencies and decide after the poll which seat to retain before they enter the Lok Sabha – by-elections are then held for the ‘discarded’ constituencies). Gandhi was accused of running scared of his BJP challenger in Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, but Congress argued that the decision to stand from Kerala would “send a message to Southern States that the Congress respects their culture, language and traditions” (in contrast to the BJP’s focus on the northern Hindi heartland). Modi continued his personal attacks on Rahul Gandhi, and added a communal flavour, claiming that Rahul had only stood in that seat as Hindus (the majority in India and the religious constituency the BJP targets) were in a minority there.
In Modi’s home state of Gujarat, the BJP had extensively campaigned by “focusing on nationalism and the Indian air strike in Pakistan”. Modi sought to drive home the national security narrative, stating that "Indian democracy presents an example before the world. While on one hand, an IED is the weapon of terrorists, on the other hand, the voter ID is the weapon and power of democracy," This followed a week where the national security narrative remained high in the BJPs campaign message, with Modi warning Pakistan that India’s nuclear weapons were not being “saved for Diwali”.
What we think
The estimated voter turnout figures reveal that the northeastern state of Assam had much higher turnout figures than the national average in Phase 3 of voting – 81% - continuing the trend in the election to date. The political discussion in the state, as discussed in last week’s briefing, has centred on the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Although Assam is not one of the biggest states, its 14 seats may be crucial for the BJP to win to form a majority. A high turnout is likely to reflect dissatisfaction with the BJP and does not bode well for their fortunes there. However, a similarly high estimated turnout (80%) in the neighbouring state of West Bengal (which returns 42 seats to the Lok Sabha) is likely to herald bad news for the ruling Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congres – a key regional player who has stood apart from both the BJP and Congress led alliances. Despite pre-voting opinion polls predicting the Trinamool Congress to do well in the election, others are interpreting the high turnout as an anti-incumbency wave that may well benefit the BJP.
The clientelistic nature of some of India’s politics was thrown into sharp focus not only by the recovery of substantial sums of money from a candidate’s office in Tamil Nadu, but also by BJP Union Minister Maneka Gandhi’s comment that those villages which return higher levels of votes for the BJP will be prioritised for development expenditure. This followed her comments the previous week stating that if Muslims did not vote for her, they should not expect to receive jobs after the election. Some analysts have pointed out that before the introduction of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) it was not possible to identify which polling booth (approximately 1000 voters) voted for which party – raising questions about the secrecy of the ballot. Releasing polling booth data (‘Form 20’) adds to the problem.
The defection of Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi to the Shiv Sena (a Hindu nationalist party in Maharashtra) this week was a reminder that party ideologies can mean little for candidates. Chaturvedi cited that the reason for her departure was ‘the reinstatement of party workers who had allegedly misbehaved with her’ for which she was supported by many women’s groups on social media. However, the fact that she joined the Shiv Sena, a BJP ally, was interpreted by others as meaning that receiving a ticket for the election was the most important thing (she was recently denied a ticket by the Congress).
Things to watch out for next week
The 4th phase of voting is on Tuesday April 29th when 71 constituencies across nine states go to the polls. These include 17 seats from Maharashtra, 13 from Rajasthan and 13 from Uttar Pradesh. It will be interesting to watch whether the BJP continues to focus on national security issues in its heartland, or whether issues of farmers’ distress will receive more prominence. In addition, the fact that the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath tweeted that the Muslim League had ‘infected’ the Congress, demonstrates the continuing importance of communal politics in this campaign. The decision of the BJP to field a candidate accused of involvement in ‘Hindu terrorism’ (currently out on bail) also demonstrates the increasing communalisation of the campaign despite protestations that the BJP’s campaign would be about ‘development’.
The continuing failure of the Congress and the anti-corruption party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to agree a seat sharing alliance to take on the BJP when Delhi goes to the polls in Phase 6 on May 12th appears to confirm the cautious stance of the party to coalitions. Without an alliance, the BJP looks likely to hold the majority of the 7 seats returned by the capital. This followed the Congress’s earlier failure to agree other seat sharing alliances in Uttar Pradesh with the regional parties, the BSP and Samajwadi Party (SP), as well as elsewhere.
Don’t forget to check out our #Indiavotes2019 coverage of the election on our social media and on theasiadialogue.com
With best wishes
Asia Research Institute
Posted on Wednesday 1st May 2019