The Cable

India’s State Elections: What to Watch

A test for Modi, a chance for a new party, and an impact on the rest of the world.

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On March 11, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have a better sense of whether he has a mandate.

That’s when the votes for Indian state elections — currently underway in five of the country’s states — will be counted and announced. The five states are Goa, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Manipur, and Uttar Pradesh.

These aren’t just tiny, out of the way elections; Uttar Pradesh (UP) alone has a population of roughly 200 million. And they’re not just impacting local politics. State legislators indirectly select India’s upper house of parliament. In other words, hundreds of millions of people across India could change the course of the rest of Modi’s term.

These elections are viewed as a kind of midterm, Richard Rossow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Foreign Policy. That doesn’t mean that the outcome will foreshadow how Modi’s party, BJP, does in the next general election, slated for 2019. But the state elections, Rossow said, can be useful in “gauging the temperature.”

That’s especially true with respect to Uttar Pradesh. BJP won that state by a tremendous margin in the last general election. If Modi’s BJP were to lose in UP, said Sanjay Ruparelia, professor at the New School, “it would take the shine off his government, and his rule. It’s already taken quite a hit” over concerns that Modi did not live up to his own hype, and that his policies are not, in fact, good for average Indians.

Case in particular point: Modi’s controversial demonetization policy. In November, in an effort to fight back against corruption and “black money,” Modi decided to declare illegal 500 and 1000 rupee notes — or, 85 percent of the currency in circulation. Modi decided to not announce this initiative so as to take the corrupt by surprise. Which he did. Unfortunately, he caught everybody else by surprise, too, including farmers, workers, and small business owners. “The long-term consequences are still to be told,” Ruparelia said. “The short term was a fiasco.”

And so if BJP can still perform well in these elections — and polls are inconclusive as to whether they will — that would suggest, Rossow says, that Indian citizens will cope with “the pain they feel about waiting in line [for currency] — as long as they think the fat cats are feeling more pain.”

It is one thing for members of parliament to debate Modi’s demonetization policies. And they have, leading Modi to blame Indira Gandhi for not having demonetized in the 1970s. But it is another for the people to say at the ballot box whether they are willing to swallow Modi’s monetary pill. 

Alternatively, if the Aam Aadmi Party, focused on anti-corruption and currently the ruling party in Delhi, wins control over a second state (specifically, Punjab), it might show itself to be more than a fringe political player, and also suggest that Indians are looking for methods other than Modi’s to fight corruption.

If voters do back Modi at the state level, he’ll have an easier time in the upper house of parliament, making it easier to implement BJP’s agenda nationally.

And that, in turn, has ramifications outside of India. The state votes typically boil down to local issues like who can provide electricity and water to their villages and services to their cities; almost no voters give thought to how their vote might impact foreign policy, Rossow says.

Still, a win for the BJP would empower Modi in his present course: poking Pakistan over the disputed territory of the Kashmir and bulking up militarily to balance China’s growing influence in the neighborhood. Ultimately, a BJP sweep at the state level could entrench a more muscular Indian foreign policy for years to come — although what that would mean for U.S.-Indian relations depends as much on the White House (and U.S. immigration policy) as it does on who’s the big winner on March 11.

Photo credit: SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP/Getty Images

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