Parliamentary Elections in India in 2019: Will the Alignment of Forces Change?

On April 11, India launched its parliamentary elections, undoubtedly the most important political event on the country’s national scale. This year, the ballot breaks a number of statistical records, including in terms of voter numbers (900 million), constituencies (930,000), and the expected costs (over $6.5 billion). Once again, it will be the most costly election in the world. More than 10 million officials will supervise the integrity of voting and electoral logistics. The process involves hundreds of parties that have nominated thousands of candidates all over the country and intense rivalry between them will, as before, demonstrate Indian democracy in action. The election will last for a total of 38 days and the last of its seven stages will come to an end on May 19. 

The alignment of forces

As usual, it is very difficult to predict the outcome of voting in India. In general, this year’s elections, unlike the 2014 ballot, are notable for an even greater unpredictability. Numerous opinion polls show that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which headed the government for the last five years, will win the largest number of seats in parliament, but probably not the absolute majority. In all likelihood, the BJP will have to form a coalition with smaller regional parties. In any event, the period of one-party rule, a sufficiently rare phenomenon for the Indian political system, has come to an end. 

The Indian National Congress (INC), the main opposition party, will certainly increase its presence in the lower chamber, but will be unable to challenge the BJP in any meaningful way for a number of reasons. First, the party is weak at the top. Its leader, Rahul Gandhi, is a rather popular politician but he lacks the charisma and thoroughness needed for gaining massive support. In the eyes of Indians, he has built his image on criticisms of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and has no new and constructive agenda to offer to make India better. The Congress pins its main hope on protest voting by that part of the electorate who are dissatisfied with the BJP’s performance. However, a lot of voters are also displeased with the excessive nepotism in the INC that has been dominated for 70 years by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, although, on the other hand, this is an important guarantee of inner-party stability. Second, the INC has failed to reach agreement on forming an alliance with a number of influential parties capable of putting up a fight in the key states and union territories. As in previous years, the hottest confrontation is expected in Uttar Pradesh, one of the biggest and most populous states, where 80 parliamentary seats at once are up for grabs. The opposition would be most likely to emerge on top were it able to present a united front. But the strong regional parties like the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), which jointly are a serious challenge to the ruling BDP, have refused, at the last moment, to form an alliance with the INC. For this reason, the opposition will most likely fail to consolidate the protest vote in Uttar Pradesh. A similar situation is emerging in Delhi, where Rahul Gandhi is negotiating a union with Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is the ruling party in the National Capital Territory of Delhi. A victory in Delhi, even if not creating a considerable quantitative edge (just 7 seats), can be of much symbolic importance. But outside of an alliance with the AAP, the Congress stands little chance. The opposition, be it the INC or regional parties, can emerge victorious or at least put up a fight in a number of states and union territories. But this will not be enough to oppose the BDP at the national level. 

Implications for the economy and foreign policy

By the end of the current five-year BDP period, voters have conceived a number of grievances against the ruling party and the prime minister. The demonetization reform and the imposition of a goods and services tax have failed to produce the needed effect, this against the background of a slowing economy. The unemployment levels, particularly among young people, have hit a new high. Finally, the crisis has affected agriculture, a highly sensitive economic sector. All of this is accompanied by corruption scandals that are actively exploited by the opposition and attract public attention. 

As estimated by most analysts, economic reforms must be continued regardless of electoral results. The current government has set itself an ambitious goal of making the Indian economy the third in the world in terms of GDP after China and the United States by 2030. This plan cannot be implemented unless the government expands the middle class, carries out land reform and reform of labor legislation, develops infrastructure and ensures equality among Indian citizens. Given that during the previous five years the Modi Cabinet failed to implement many laws it had promised, important achievement in the coming five years seems doubtful. The opposition, which by all appearances will increase its legislative presence, will make decision-making and implementation of reforms more difficult for the ruling party. 

Regardless of the new government’s composition, India will face the same foreign policy challenges, including the need to avoid a direct conflict with Pakistan, combine cooperation and rivalry with China, and maintain a balance in relations with Russia and the United States. Over the years, India’s foreign policy has adapted to these needs. New Delhi has always prioritized a strong relationship with Russia, no matter what political party is in power in this or that period. It is also obvious that continued cooperation with the current Indian government is more in conformity with Russian interests. Both President Vladimir Putin and the Russian foreign ministry made this clear even before the Indian election by inviting Narendra Modi as the main guest to the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. Thus, a BDP victory will make it possible to maintain the pace at which Russian-Indian relations have been developing. It is only a matter of time until May 23, when the election results will be announced.   

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.