What to Expect from the Parliamentary Election in India?

On April 11, the parliamentary election got underway in India, a country long and rightfully known as the world’s biggest democracy, to elect the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. This general election will be held in seven phases through May 19, reaching more than 900 million voters who are expected to elect 543 MPs from single-member constituencies (another two will be appointed by the government from the Anglo-Indian community in order to ensure that minority interests are represented. Therefore, a party or political alliance will need to get 272 seats in order to command an absolute majority.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headed by the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a clear-cut victory during the preceding election in 2014. Even without the support of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition it had 283 seats, enough to form a government. With the NDA, its majority exceeded 300 seats.

The Indian National Congress (INC), the country’s oldest party, had a poor showing at the 2014 election. Headed by Rahul Gandhi who hails from a line of politicians known as the Nehru-Gandhi family, INC won only 44 seats in the lower house of parliament. This outcome was attributable to a number of reasons, including Rahul Gandhi’s lack of political experience and a poorly managed campaign. INC has now recovered from this defeat, and Rahul Gandhi has acquired the necessary experience. Therefore, there can be some serious competition between the country’s two leading political forces, NDA led by BJP and the INC-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). They have already announced their candidates for the post of prime minister: Narendra Modi for NDA and Rahul Gandhi for UPA.

Making political forecasts is a thankless task when it comes to India. First-past-the-post voting makes converting national approval ratings into electoral projections impossible. In addition to this, many factors can affect the outcome of the election, including regional, ethnic, religious and clan matters, etc. Nevertheless, most forecasts tend to predict NDA’s victory, although it is expected to win a smaller majority compared to 2014. Opinion surveys carried out just before the first voting phase show that NDA could win between 275 and 279 seats, which is three to seven seats above the required majority, while BJP is credited with 220 to 230 seats in the lower house. At the same time, UPA would hardly exceed 150 seats, the same survey showed.

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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.

If these forecasts come true, Narendra Modi is highly likely to remain India’s prime minister, although he will have to face an opposition that will be much stronger and more influential compared to the previous legislature. That being said, some Indian experts told the author that many things could change if BJP does not win the expected seats and gets 200 MPs or even less. This would force it to bargain with smaller parties outside of the alliance, and these parties could insist on changing the prime minister as a condition for joining the coalition. However, most observers believe that this turn of events is unlikely.

There was much talk over the past two months that Narendra Modi benefited from the February escalation between India and Pakistan and the air strike against a terrorist camp in Pakistan. Even if this is the case, it had only a minor effect on the average India voters who tend to prioritize matters related to their everyday lives: economics and income levels, unemployment, etc. The Modi government has been quite successful in this regard: India boasts one of the world’s highest economic growth rates of above 7 percent, and is expected to become the world’s third largest economy in absolute terms in the next decade (India currently ranks third in terms of purchasing power parity). The country also had some tangible, albeit limited, success in employment, countering corruption and environmental protection, including cleaning up the Ganges, India’s sacred river.

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Modi will certainly retain his position and his party will be returned to power. Gandhi’s victory seems uncertain because their alliances are not in place, across large portions of India, the Congress’s footprints have shrunk, a number of regional parties do not trust the Congress party.

However, during the previous election campaign the Modi government placed its bets on Hindutva, or the principles of Hinduism, angering many religious minorities, considering that non-Hindus account for at least 20 percent of the population. In this sphere, the government has recently failed to secure parliamentary approval of an amendment to the citizenship bill designed to grant asylum to refugees from neighboring Muslim countries: Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Rajya Sabha, the upper house also known as the Council of States, rejected the amendments, since the BJP does not have a majority there. INC is now trying to use this incident in its campaign.

No matter what the outcome of the election is, one thing is quite clear: there will be no sharp turn in India’s foreign policy. Parties agree on most foreign policy matters, while continuity is viewed as essential for promoting India’s national interests. Consequently, India is likely to maintain its independent and balanced foreign policy in place and will seek to build partnerships wherever possible.

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