Foreign Policy

Election Q&A: Inside India’s Race to the Polls

India’s national elections, less than six months away, will be keenly watched as the world tries to gauge the direction of Indian politics. Recent assembly elections, held across Chhattisgarh, New Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Mizoram, gave observers a glimpse into the mind of the Indian voter. The results showed weak support for the incumbent ...

The Hindustan Times/ Getty Images
The Hindustan Times/ Getty Images

India’s national elections, less than six months away, will be keenly watched as the world tries to gauge the direction of Indian politics. Recent assembly elections, held across Chhattisgarh, New Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Mizoram, gave observers a glimpse into the mind of the Indian voter. The results showed weak support for the incumbent Congress party and its allies, while victories in four states for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suggested the party’s resurgence. The emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi on an anti-corruption platform also revealed a new trend in Indian politics.

India experts including Sadanand Dhume, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Philip Oldenburg, professor of political science at Columbia University, and Ashutosh Varshney, a professor and the director of the India Initiative at Brown University, gathered at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies on December 3 to attend a conference on the 2014 parliamentary elections. Foreign Policy’s South Asia Channel discussed the changing dynamics of the election with Oldenburg and Varshney on Dec. 3 and with Dhume on Dec. 8, the same day the results of the first assembly elections were announced. 

What are your thoughts on the results of the recent assembly elections?

Dhume: The first big takeaway from the assembly elections is that the Congress party is in deep trouble in the Hindi heartland of India. The effect of a deeply unpopular central government is being seen quite dramatically, particularly in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, but also in Delhi. The second big takeaway is that this, for the first time, waltzes the BJP into pole position as the leading contender for power in the 2014 election. They were not the front-runner, according to me, before the assembly elections, but they are the front-runner today.

The press tends to report the upcoming election as a contest of personalities, between Rahul Gandhi, presumably the future leader of the Congress party, and Narendra Modi, the controversial leader of the BJP. Is this an accurate portrayal?

Dhume: It’s accurate but incomplete. It’s certainly accurate in the sense that the coming general election has taken on a presidential aspect because of the way the media is covering it, and that is in turn translating into reality.That’s how many people think about this. But it’s incomplete because states are very important. In many ways it’s more helpful to look at the Indian election as closer to the EU than the US — it’s an aggregate of states. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that something has shifted, and that this contest is in fact more presidential than any previous contest. 

Oldenburg: I don’t think that it’s as important as the press makes it – it’s a matter of convenience for them. I have an argument that voters want someone to be in charge after the election. But that someone doesn’t have to be the prime ministerial candidate. What you do need is a kingmaker, someone who has the authority to choose the prime ministerial candidate, typically the acknowledged leader of these two major coalitions. This means that Sonia Gandhi remains critical, and I think it’s recognized by Congress voters that whatever happens, there will be someone to make a decision.

The popularity issue has to do with the base: Do these people get their workers enthused, rather than the voters. At the moment, it seems as if Modi is way ahead in that respect, but Modi has also made life difficult for himself by his relationships with the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing paramilitary Hindu nationalist group], so it’s not clear to me how this will work in the long term. Rahul is clearly been working away on the base, perhaps not so much being an inspiring leader. So in that small way it is a Modi vs. Rahul battle.


Do you see the BJP distancing itself from its Hindu nationalist ideology in the election? Would you describe this as an image change or a fundamental transformation of the party?

Dhume: The BJP has distanced itself greatly from the hardcore Hindu nationalism which defined it in the early 1990s. It has instead adopted development as its main plank, and even though Narenda Modi is a leader popular among Hindu nationalists, the record he is running on is a record of good governance and economic development in Gujarat. This is part of a transformation underway in the BJP. I would argue that it is still an incomplete transformation, but it is a movement in the right direction.

Oldenburg: I don’t think the Hindu nationalist identity has ever been that positive of a feature of the BJP. What it is code for, for far too many people, is an anti-Muslim attitude. But I’ve always believed that while about half of the BJP support comes from Hindu nationalism, the other half comes from it being a party of integrity and discipline, and that’s what their voters want. Furthermore, half of the Hindu nationalists are not in the BJP, they’re in the Congress or other parties. So the notion that BJP vote equals Hindu nationalism, or Hindu nationalism equals BJP, is just simply mistaken.

Varshney: The ideology of Hindu nationalism, in its purest form, has no chance of coming to power. The realities of Indian democratic politics, which require coalition formation, also require that you introduce ideological moderation in your campaigning and governance. So an ideologically pure administration is more possible at the state level, but the possibility of that in Delhi is miniscule. Even Mr. Modi, who was seen as an ideologically pure Hindu nationalist, understands the compulsions of Indian democratic politics. And if he comes to power, I don’t think it will be catastrophe, because he will have to function within the constitutional parameters. The rules are clearly set.


Does Modi’s rise in part reflect a trend toward "strong man" politics?

Dhume: You have to place that within a democratic context. What "strong man" means in the Indian context is very different from what it may mean in the Russian context or the Syrian context. Strong leadership in a deeply democratic country should not be misconstrued as anything like dictatorship, or a strong man in the context of an authoritarian state. India is an extremely robust democracy with a strong civil society and deep democratic traditions, and the idea that anyone could potentially endanger Indian democracy strikes me as hyberbolic and far-fetched.

Varshney: Whether or not rural India thinks that way, a lot of urban middle class is undoubtedly looking for a strong man. A decisive, masculine figure, who is capable of taking quick and tough decisions and would not be accused of "undue compassion" or "unwarranted femininity." Mr. Manmohan Singh does not demonstrate either great masculinity or decisiveness, and much of the urban middle class is frustrated with that.  


What role do you see changing voter demographics playing in this election? Do you see a larger role for young voters, for the middle-class, or for women?

Dhume: The biggest is young voters in terms of a new demographic, voters from the 18-22 year olds. This is the first election for a post-liberalization generation, so they have higher expectations in terms of economic growth and development. That’s one wild card. The other is the surge in middle-class voting, particularly after the anti-corruption movement of 2011. And you can see that reflected in Delhi and the support for the AAP.

Varshney: There are two issues which we understand reasonably well as scholars. Of course, the very large proportion of first-time voters that will be there. The estimate is 100-140 million voters. And we know from available surveys that this particular demographic segment is more inclined towards Mr. Modi than towards Rahul Gandhi. Second, the middle class, whose numbers are rising, that is also gravitating hugely towards Mr. Modi. Women, we don’t know. Most probably we’ll know much more about it before the elections. One demographic segment you’ve not mentioned is the poor. They are also voting in much larger numbers than before, and we don’t know whether they are attracted to Mr. Modi.


Are parties trying to cater to voters by addressing women’s safety issues?

Varshney: That’s one of the sad ironies of Indian democracy, that roughly half of India’s population, which is women of course, their safety only appears to have agitated the middle class. We have no evidence that that particular issue is an issue for rural India. Not that rape does not take place in rural India, but that is to be analytically separated from whether the safety of women is a political issue in the countryside. And as far as we can tell, it’s not. Is it becoming an issue in the urban middle class segment of the electorate? Increasingly so. Will it decisively change how women vote? The answer is we don’t know.


What are the implications for social sector schemes, like the Food Security Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act? Would these continue under BJP-led coalition?

Dhume: I genuinely don’t know, because I think the BJP hasn’t figured some of these things out. There are contrasting pulls and pressures within the party. Large sections of the party want to continue running these schemes, administer them better and take political credit for them, and there are other elements in the party that recognize that these schemes have put India on an unsustainable path and would like to put more emphasis on things like infrastructure. So that’s going to be one of the central economic issues that the next government is going to have to grapple with.

Varshney: If the UPA comes back to power, they won’t be abandoned. Congress is defining itself now as a sort of labor party or social democratic party, a party that is thinking about the poor and underprivileged. By underprivileged, it means 60-65% of India. It’s not entirely wrong, but it’s not entirely precise, that statement. If the BJP and the NDA come to power, it’s going to be hard to drop these programs. Given the rising inequalities of India, at least in the perception of a lot of Indians, the fact that one-fourth to one-third is below the poverty line and another 15-25% is only slightly above the poverty line, and given that these people vote so much more than the upper classes, Indian democracy is feeling the weight of the underprivileged, and this is not a weight that the BJP can shake off. Welfare programs have become a political necessity, whatever your ideological beliefs.


What impact are different election outcomes likely to have on the external perception of India?

Dhume: The simple version is that the best possible outcome from a foreign investor’s perspective is a strong, stable BJP-led government with economic reform on its agenda. The worst possible outcome from a foreign investor’s perspective is an unstable mishmash led by assorted anti-reform populists.

Varshney: The business community would like a better business environment in India, whichever party can provide it. They are not invested in a party, they are invested in better business opportunities, and better business opportunities are likely to come from an NDA government led by Mr. Modi. The business community has declining faith in the capacities of the UPA to be pro-market or pro-business, rightly or wrongly. If India’s economic performance does improve, which is likely, the world will rush back again. It’s still there, substantially — people haven’t pulled out — but there will be a much greater rush of investors.

Ana Swanson is a contributor to Foreign Policy's Tea Leaf Nation and is a former editor at FP's South Asia Channel.