Dynamics of Indian Politics and the 2019 General Elections

Chiharu Takenaka
Professor of Rikkyo University

1. Dynamics of Indian democracy

The volatility of Indian politics is accentuated by --- apart from snap elections --- the General Elections over 543 seats of the Lok Sabha (House of the People), or the lower house of India's bicameral federal parliament, held every five years. In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 282 seats and became the dominant party in the Lok Sabha. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), or BJP's electoral coalition, secured 332 seats, much more than the majority mark, inclusive of those acquired by allied parties. The BJP established a coalition government headed by Narendra Modi, who gained the support of the people. Moreover, in the elections for the state legislatures, BJP accumulated victories; and by the end of 2018, NDA established its government in seven states, while BJP in nine states, out of a total of 31 administrative zones consisting of 29 states, a Union Territory and a National Capital Region.

Taking BJP's strength for granted, some experts have gone so far as to coin the term "BJP System"(Guha 2015) to describe the party's realpolitik. Once a political scientist R. Kothari invented a term "The Congress System" to represent the dominance the Indian National Congress (INC) --- the India's first nationalist party --- kept in both federal and state legislatures over 20 years after India's independence, thereby realizing a lasting political stability. "BJP System" is a designation reminiscent of Kothari's. G. Sartori, an eminent scholar on party system theory, applied the concept of "predominant party system" to the INC-centered party politics in 1947-1967 (Sartori 1976). Then, will a one-party dominant system return again --- this time with BJP at center instead of INC?

The power base of the BJP government is Hindu supremacist forces, negating "Indian secularism" that pledges the religious pluralism and the protection of minorities --- tenets handed down from the days of Independence. As a policy of the "Hinduization" of state and society, the BJP government has advanced "Hindutva Politics" aiming at "the revival of the great Hindu state." The driving forces leading the BJP government into that direction are collectively referred to as the "RSS Family (Sangh Parivar)," including the National Volunteers Organization or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and related Hindu supremacist organizations. These forces have made an outright persecution against the people labelled as "the enemies of Hindutva," such as minority Muslims, equality-seeking Dalits, and women asserting their civil rights, and have imposed further control over the people.

In the General Elections scheduled for mid-2019, it will be tested whether BJP dominance can be maintained. This paper will characterize the Indian election mechanism that generates strong political dynamism, then review the recent elections, and finally discuss where Indian politics is heading.

2. The Indian electoral system: the first-past-the-post system, reservation system, and electronic voting machines

India's politics and its unique electoral system are closely related with each other. After Independence in 1947, the INC government led by the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru worked on the enactment of the Constitution. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was appointed as chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee. Ambedkar had took the leadership in anti-caste discrimination movements. His career was expected to help achieve the unity of the people by surmounting divisions over caste. Incorporating the ideas of Ambedkar, the Constitution was enacted in 1950. It introduced much novelty: a democracy principled on gender equality and a one-man-one-vote suffrage; a federal system integrating multi-ethnic groups, and a British-modelled parliamentary system of government and first-past-the-post system.

Based on Article 324 of the Constitution, the Election Commission of India was established (and still exists today) as an independent entity. The Commission has jurisdiction over elections to elect members of the upper house of the federal parliament of India (Rajya Sabha or Council of States); the lower house of the federal parliament of India (Lok Sabha or House of the People); the state legislative assemblies (Vidhan Sabha); President, and Vice President. Currently the Commission employs more than 300 staff members and fulfills administrative work for elections. Electorally, India comprises 35 zones that include the states and Union Territories. A state election commission is established in each state.

An important role of the Election Commission of India is to complete the pollbooks; change electoral districts according to population ratios; register candidates, and register political parties holding candidates. Parties fall into "National Party," "State Party," and "Unrecognized Party." The Commission monitors election campaigns and the actual state of campaign funds. For a thorough management of information, it controls the media, while enlisting their cooperation. Furthermore, in cooperation with the states or more local administrations, the Commission sets up and operates polling stations; secures the safety of voters, and carries out ballot counting and tallying.

The sizes and forms of electoral districts are determined by the "Delimitation Commission" comprising the Election Commission members and judges. The Delimitation Commission is set up by the Federal parliament. The Constitution stipulates that based on the census (every ten years), electoral districts with almost an equivalent population should be decided taking into consideration geographical conditions and administrative areas.

The total number of voters exceeded 814 million in the 2014 General Elections. The population growth rate has well surpassed 1%; and more than 100 million voters have increased over the past five years. When it comes to the 2019 General Elections, the total number of voters is expected to be over 900 million, of which more than 2% are youth aged 18-19. The average age of the citizens is in the mid-20s. The large number of young voters influences Indian politics.

The first characteristics of Indian electoral system is the first-past-the-post system, where one representative is elected from one constituency, and the candidate who wins the largest number of votes is elected. India's electoral system is modeled on the British system. Does the British-born system really function in a society where voters are anything but uniform, with variegated backgrounds in terms of religion, ethnicity, caste, language, race, rich-poor disparity, educational gap, gender, and rural-urban antagonism? It is of great interest to see how Indian society has utilized this system in a unique way.

Another feature of the Indian electoral system is a "reservation system." Ambedkar, chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, introduced it to eliminate discrimination against the untouchables. The system is to guarantee a certain number of representatives for both Scheduled Castes (SC) which were the untouchables in the past but now called Dalit, and Scheduled Tribes (ST) which used to be called tribes but now Adivasi. According to the revision of electoral districts in 2002, 84 out of the 543 seats of the Lok Sabha were allotted to SC, while 47 to ST. The number of constituencies for SC and ST amounted to 131, accounting for one fourth of the total number of the Lok Sabha seats.

Regarding the reservation of parliamentary seats, there is a recent move. In the era of Rajiv Gandhi's INC government, the Constitutional amendment took place in 1991, and a new system was introduced to reserve for women one third of the total number of seats at prefectural and municipality legislatures and their heads. It widely enlarged opportunities for women to enter politics from a grass-root level. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who took charge of the INC government in 2004-14 submitted a bill to introduce reservation for women in the Federal parliament. Although the bill passed the Rajya Sabha in 2010, it was scrapped in the Lok Sabha dominated by opponents.

On the other hand, the people of the farmer caste called Shudra, a caste which ranks above the SC/ST, claimed that protection by the reservation system should also be provided to them, "Other Backward Classes (OBC)" stipulated in the Constitution. This policy was adopted by the Janata party government (1977-79) and was implemented in all the states in the 1990s, guaranteeing OBC a recruitment quota for civil servants, and the distribution of stipends and subsidies. However there was no constituency reserved for OBC. Amid these trends, higher caste people are also demanding reservations. In January 2019, the 124th Constitutional amendment bill was approved by the Lok Sabha to secure a 10% reservation in employment and education for the poor of "Forward Classes." This was really a shocking development to the citizens who consider the policy ruinous.

In order to realize a one-man-one-vote election by overcoming socio-economic disparity, the innovation of election-related tools is also important. Although the literacy rate has recently neared 70%, India has a large illiterate population. After Independence, a large format ballot sheet was introduced to facilitate voting --- the voter has only to put his/her thumbprint beside a party symbol, printed along with the names of the candidate and the political party he/she prefers. All that is required of the voter is to identify the symbol mark of the party he/she supports. In 2004, an electronic balloting machine capable of displaying as many as 16 candidates was introduced. Actually, two or three of this machine are installed beside a ballot box in a polling station. This technological innovation has succeeded in preventing election-related crimes such as the replacement of ballot forms or the robbery and destruction of ballot boxes. As a result voting results are tallied and publicized in a short time.

The Election Commission of India has also been increasing the number of polling stations. Recently, instructions were given that a polling station should be installed per 1,500 voters and be accessible with a distance of two kilometers or less. The voting rate for the 2014 General Elections averaged 66.4% on a nationwide basis, and exceeded 80% in many states. The voter turnout of women, young people, and poor people from lower castes tended to increase.

Election-related security policies are also important. It is an Indian commonsense that in elections, "muscle" will speak along with "money." Since long time ago, election-related crimes had been committed repeatedly, where in both urban and rural areas, some political parties and their candidates, by use of private armies, threatened or injured rival candidates and their supporters, destroying polling stations, stealing ballot boxes, etc. However, as the actual situation in electoral districts is attracting wide attention through the media and SNS, state governments, in collaboration with state election commissions, are making increasing efforts to maintain election-related security.

3. The Election Strategy of BJP: election coalition, election arithmetic, human wave tactics, and media warfare

It is not incidental that BJP won a large victory in the 2014 General Elections. BJP and its camp formulated effective strategies, employed many activists, and adopted a vigorous human wave tactic.

First, BJP created and utilized electoral coalitions. BJP, once a weak party, was quick to experience coalition politics. Jan Sangh, the precursor of BJP, joined in 1977 the Janata party belonging to the anti-INC coalition committed to fighting the Indira Gandhi government, and in due course joined the Janata party government. Jan Sangh abided by its anti-Muslimism and Hindu supremacist ideology, and later left the anti-INC coalition and created BJP. In the 1989 General Elections, BJP made a remarkable progress. It became the dominant parliamentary party in 1996, but could not establish a government due to opposition from other parties. In the 1998 General Elections, however, the National Democratic Alliance with BJP at center was formed, and the Vajpayee government came into existence, and lasted beyond the 1999 General Elections.

Different parties belonging to the Janata party group are acting independently in state assembly elections, but they have formed coalitions on the federal level to establish government. The Janata party was inaugurated in 1977 by the Congress (O) that parted with the Indira Gandhi government and by state-based farmers' parties. Afterward the Janata party divided into BJP and other parties. In the areas where OBC voters were their strong supporters, Janata-related parties were influential. In and after the 1980's these parties established government in many states, and on the federal level, the Janata coalition government was established in 1977-1979, 1989-1991 and 1996-1998. In other words, the Janata party group boasts abundant experience with electoral coalition and coalition government. With poor, local farmers as their main supporters, the Janata party group is calling for the distribution of wealth and the guarantee of social rights, while emphasizing identities such as caste and ethnicity. They advocate socialism and social democracy, and are proactive in forming a united front against Muslims.

Since Independence, the INC stayed aloof from other parties, although it cooperated with the pro-Soviet Communist Party of India (CPI) in the Indira Gandhi era. The INC had their own partisan politicians in all constituencies, and was reluctant toward electoral coalition or coalition government. Nonetheless, in the 1989 and 1996 General Elections, the INC played the role of a king maker by providing extra-cabinet supports to the Janata coalition government. In the 2004 General Elections, the INC, first in its history, formed an electoral coalition called "United Progressive Alliance (UPA)." Contrary to everybody's expectations, INC defeated BJP and established a government. This electoral alliance has survived since then.

In addition to these three major political forces, there are also the Communist leftist forces and unique political parties like the socialist Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), with SC/ST as its chief supporters in the state of Uttar Pradesh. In a situation where many parties are struggling, the BJP led the National Democratic Alliance and won a great victory in the 2014 General Elections. The reasons for BJP's victory will be recapitulated below.

First, BJP found a charismatic leader in Modi. Modi, who governed Gujarat State for three consecutive terms over 14 years, had a proven track record of realizing a "10% economic growth" in the state. He promised to realize a miraculous growth of India. In order to mobilize a tremendous number of voters to voting machines in a huge country, it was necessary to create a charismatic leader.

The second reason was the formation of "election machine." Modi and his right-hand man Amit Shah had been fighting campaigns in the STATE OF Gujarat since the end of the 1990s. When the young Shah was entrusted with election campaigns for an RSS big name Advani in Gandhinagar in Gujarat state in the 1989 General Elections, he ran exhaustive campaigns. He captured votes one by one by making full use of RSS campaign troops, and won a victory. This "Gandhinagar method" was implemented nationwide in the 2014 General Elections.

Thirdly, the Modi camp gathered as many as 16,000 engineers who graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) to Gujarat to form a professional group of election analysts. Dispatched from Gujarat to constituencies around the country, they collected and analyzed electoral information using the Internet and PC in the "War Room" of each election office. Specific strategies tailored for respective constituencies were executed.

Fourth, BJP mastered "election arithmetic" and "election engineering," both of which are commonsense terms in Indian politics. Taking the case of Uttar Pradesh (80 seats) for example, BJP supporters are people of higher castes, Brahman and Kshatriya, who account for just 5-10% of the total population there. According to Jha's analysis: "Muslims will never vote for BJP; OBC are almost loyalty to the Socialist Party, and especially Yadavs will never vote for BJP; the majority of Dalits may vote for Mayawati, not for BJP." Jha classifies voters into three categories A, B, and C. A is solid BJP voters; B is undecided, and C is anti-BJP voters. If this analysis is correct, victory will hinge on how to win category B voters (Jha 2017).

Fifth, BJP has consistently advocated a "unified Hindu nationalism." Modi emphasizes his origin as a poor OBC, and has acquired empathy of lower castes and the poor. Even in the 2017 Presidential Election, Prime Minister Modi recommended a Dalit BJP leader for a presidential candidate, advocating a unified Hindu nationalism beyond caste discrimination. Moreover, BJP promoted women's protection and empowerment policies to rectify the male-dominant Hindu society and to appeal to women's sympathy.

Will such strength of BJP in the past election campaigns be seen again in the 2019 General Elections? Under the Modi government, the RSS Family intensifies violent persecution against minority Muslims and Christians, Dalits, aborigines, and women. Such persecution is now drawing harsh public criticism. To what extent BJP's "unified Hindu nationalism" will be trusted by voters should be watched carefully.

4. The 2018 Legislative Assembly Elections: the twisted federal-local relationship, the ant-incumbency rule, and the opposition alliance

What kind of move happened in state assembly elections and by-elections in 2018? At this moment, it can be said that the invincible image of BJP has begun to fade and Prime Minister Modi's charismatic charms have somewhat diminished. Amit Shah, called "the present day Chanakya" is also fighting a tough fight.

Let us now point out two characteristics of the Indian political system. One of them is the relationship between federal and local governments and another the flipped control of the House. For example, if the federal government is led by BJP, BJP-led state governments will benefit in terms of finance distribution and policy considerations. Therefore, weak states tend to be influenced by federal politics, and in small border states and union territories, there is a tendency for a state government to be formed under the influence of the central government. When the federal government gains overwhelming popularity, a similar phenomenon may take place in larger states.

Another feature is the "anti-incumbency rule." Since, according to the rule, the support rate for any ruling party drops after a certain period of tenure, it will lose in the next election. When viewed from a constituency level, the incumbent will lose every time an election occurs. According to common sense in political science, "incumbent advantage" prevails, but in India the opposite is the case. If this rule works also in the relationship between federal and local governments, and the popularity of the federal ruling party is low, the said party may also be weak in state assembly elections. Perversely, when the federal ruling party runs a state government, the party will lose not only in the particular state assembly elections but also in the General Elections that precede the state elections. In other words, it is a seesaw game where voters who are dissatisfied with the incumbent government punish the ruling party every time an election occurs.

The General Elections and state assembly elections take place every five years unless there is a parliamentary dissolution. State assembly elections are ordinarily implemented a little behind the schedule. Since after the General Elections in 2014, 22 elections in states and union territories have been fought so far --- unexceptionally fierce battles.

In 2014, the Jammu-Kashmir legislative assembly elections took place and the People's Democratic Party (PDP), which holds many Muslim supporters, won, and BJP helped PDP to establish government. In the February 2015 Delhi assembly elections, the incumbent Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won one-sidedly despite that BJP had been expected to win a great victory. The "anti-incumbency rule" worked more with the federal BJP government than with the Delhi AAP government. BJP was defeated alike in the Bihar legislative assembly elections in March 2015. Janata Dal (United) --- JD (U) --- and National People's Party or Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) formed a united front for a victory and established the Nitish-Kumar government (JD (U)).

In 2016, in the state of Punjab, Akali Dal, supported by BJP, decreased its seats and an INC government came into existence. In West Bengal and Kerala states, the grass-root All-India Trinamool Congress (AITC) and Communist Party of India (Marxist) --- CPI(M) --- won, respectively. BJP managed to secure seats, small in number as they were. In Assam state, BJP became the dominant party and set up a coalition NDA government with local parties. In the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly elections in February 2017, All-India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) emerged victorious.

In these political moves, BJP thought much of the 2017 Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly elections. Uttar Pradesh is India's largest state with a population of more than 200 million, and is a homeland state for BJP. Prior to the said elections, the BJP federal government allegedly abolished larger banknotes in November 2016 with a view to depleting the campaign funds of opposition camps. The combined effects of the banknotes ban and the "ant-incumbency rule" defeated the Socialist Party, which had been the ruling party there since 2012, and BJP won a large victory over INC and Bahujan Samaj Party, and established the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government. Taking advantage of the created momentum, BJP also won the state assembly elections in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, as well as in Manipur in northeast India and the Union Territory of Goa, and established BJP government in succession.

In the December 2017 legislative assembly elections held in Gujarat, which is Prime Minister Modi's home base, the BJP receded. Yet, BJP managed to win a close margin victory over INC and the BJP government survived there. After this, the tide changed. In the legislative assembly by-elections in Uttar Pradesh in March 2018, BJP was defeated severely and lost face. In Tripura, Meghalaya, and Nagaland, however, the BJP coalition won the legislative assembly elections and established government --- BJP dominated in the northeast India. The result of the Karnataka state assembly election in May 2018, on the other hand, was something like a "hung parliament." BJP failed to dominate the majority, and INC helped Janata Dal (Secular) --- JD(S) --- to establish government.

Thereafter, elections were held in four states in November and December of the same year. In the Mizoram state of northeast India, BJP won the legislative assembly elections. After that, however, BJP registered successive defeats. A local ethnic party won in Telangana, whereas neither BJP nor INC could acquire a seat. Furthermore, in the state assembly elections for three Hindi-speaking states, INC won in Chhattisgarh, encroaching the strong BJP power base; and in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh as well, INC also defeated the ruling BJP by a close margin and inaugurated new governments.

Thus, as of the beginning of 2019, BJP cannot always keep its dominance. In the background are observable a peculiar Indian political dynamism featuring the twisted federal-local relationship, the "anti-incumbency rule," and electoral coalitions. Attached below is a figure showing the state governments map and the number of votes acquired by each political party and coalition.

Source: Bloomberg, The Economic Times, Dec. 21, 2018

5. Where does Indian politics go?

Where is Indian politics headed? The following is a brief analysis as of this moment prior to the 2019 General Elections.

In the General Elections five years ago, Prime Minister Modi pledged a 10% economic growth, but the actual growth of 7% to 8% has fallen short of the pledge. Foreign capital corporations and large enterprises are given preference thanks to neoliberal policies, whereas labor-intensive, small and medium-sized industries are sluggish and the unemployment rate has not improved. If the global economy further declines and the depreciation of the rupee and inflation advances, while unemployment, low wages, and price hikes hit the livelihood of the people, the upcoming General Elections will not be exempted from the influences of these factors.

In particular, two economic policies of the Modi government are criticized. One is the abrupt abolition of larger banknotes in November 2016, which deprived the people of cash on hand and cast their lives and jobs into dire difficulties. Some experts say the damage has been restored in 10 months. Many people, however, have not recovered yet. The second is the nationally unified "goods and services tax (GST)" system introduced in July 2017. The government advertised it as the largest tax reform after the 1947 independence. The system was welcomed by foreign capital corporations and large enterprises which would be freed from complicated administrative procedures, but not domestically in general. Small and medium-sized business owners are worried much about the "pay and reimburse" system and complicated procedures concerning business with outside the state.

The other concern is what the people will think about "Hindutva politics." The primary focus in the 2014 General Elections was not "Hindutva politics" but economic growth. The people, however, did not agree to let Hindu supremacists go unchecked. The President, Vice President, and Prime Minister are now all from RSS, and "Hindutva politics" intervention in government institutions, courts, police, media, universities, schools, and grassroots society is remarkable. Freedom of education and research, as well as freedom of speech are violated. Dissident judges, journalists, social activists, researchers, and students are attacked by Hindu radicals, and minority Muslims and Christians, Dalits, and women are subject to persecution. Prime Minister Modi's handling of these questions will attract fresh attention. There is likelihood that the media and SNS that endorsed the popularity of Modi and Shah may this time work in favor of the opposite camps.

At the end of 2018, right after BJP's defeats in four state assembly elections, Amit Shah drew attention by his aggressive remarks. His prediction is that the coming elections will be an easy victory for BJP, because BJP activists have increased in number from 20 million to 94 million, the number of coalition parties has also increased from 25 to 31. This time, Modi-led BJP and Raful Gandhi-led INC will fight a duel, and a great variety of campaigns may be fought in states and constituencies, and the focus in the elections will irrefutably be economic growth and the distribution of its fruit. The situation surrounding the upcoming elections is unpredictable. People wonder how fierce a battle will be engaged. How will the ruling party design electoral campaigns? What strategy will the opposition employ?

What judgement will the people make a few months away? Will a national consensus be reached? What economic policy will be pursued? What security policy will be taken? Will BJP's "Hindutva politics" aiming at a great India be again supported? Or will INC be chosen for its moderate nationalism based on diversities like religion, caste, ethnicity, and gender? The steering of the global India will depend on 900 million voters. The elections results must exert a great impact not only on Indian politics but also on the politics of neighboring countries, Asia and the world.


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