One big election: India

While Australians have been preoccupied with our own election, a much bigger one has been in progress – in fact, the biggest exercise in democracy ever held, with more than 600 million people voting.

India went to the polls over seven phases, starting on 11 April and finishing last Sunday. Counting is to take place today; a number of exit polls have already been released, but Indian exit polling has an unreliable record.

Despite its enormous size, the election is relatively simple. Voting is first-past-the-post in each of 543 single-member electorates, and most voters choose between parties belonging to one of two broad coalitions: the National Democratic Alliance, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the United Progressive Alliance, led by the Indian National Congress.

At the last election, in 2014, the NDA won 38.4% of the vote and 336 seats; the BJP, with 282 of those, had a majority in its own right. The UPA won 23.1% but only 60 seats, while a large array of minor parties shared the remaining 147 seats. (For more background, read my preview of the 2014 election and my report on the result.)

Since then there has been the usual shuffling of parties back and forth between alliances. Some of the minor parties are now grouped into the Grand Alliance, which draws support from lower-caste Hindus and religious minorities and is clearly closer to Congress than to the BJP, or the Left Front,  led by the Communist Party.

Basically the BJP is centre-right and Congress is centre-left, although each coalition has a degree of ideological diversity. More significantly, the BJP is Hindu nationalist while Congress is more secular. More significantly still, the BJP is dominated by Narendra Modi, prime minister for the last five years, and the election is primarily a referendum on his rule.

Modi is a controversial figure, and his term has certainly not been free of problems. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that the worst fears of his opponents have not been realised: his authoritarianism has shown through in a number of ways, but the fabric of Indian democracy remains intact, at least so far.

Although he is often compared to Donald Trump, Modi exudes a degree of competence and self-control that is quite alien to Trump. That may ultimately make him more dangerous, but it has provided five years of stable government. Economic growth is strong, and while poverty and inequality are major problems, there is no sign that either party has much in the way of solutions.

Most problematic has been Modi’s strategy of pandering to Hindu extremism and anti-Muslim bigotry. Earlier in the year this involved skirmishes with Pakistan across the disputed border in Kashmir; the risk of war seems to have receded, but Modi and his allies are constantly finding new provocations to convey to religious minorities the sense that India is no longer truly their country.

Congress, as always, has its own problems; now led by Rahul Gandhi, of the fourth generation in his family to hold the position, its dynastic base sits oddly with its claim to represent the poor and marginalised. The scale of the 2014 defeat, the worst in its history, left the party traumatised, and Gandhi has done well to return it to a competitive position.

Nonetheless, and even without considering the exit polls, there seems little doubt that the BJP will be returned. In the absence of economic or political crisis, beating a first-term government is hard, and although occasional high hopes were entertained, for much of the time it’s looked as if the opposition was more about cutting Modi’s majority than actually replacing him.

The government dipped in opinion polls at the beginning of this year after defeats in key state elections, but it never lost its lead over Congress and has since recovered ground. The exit polls are consistent with that, suggesting a total for the NDA somewhere near the 300-seat mark, with a majority in the low double digits.

That would mean the BJP would most probably lose its current absolute majority, giving Modi’s allies some power to restrain him. And it would at least give Congress a more respectable representation, positioning it for a more serious challenge in five years time.

For more, the BBC’s coverage is very extensive – another legacy, like the unsatisfactory electoral system, of the imperial experience.

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