3 June 2019

The BJP Triumphant in India

A few months before the start of India’s six-week, seven-stage national elections, it appeared that there was a possibility that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP party could be ousted from power after a tumultuous five-year period in charge of the world’s most-populous democracy.  In a series of state elections late last year, the BJP was handed a series of stinging defeats, many at the hands of India’s largest opposition party, the Indian National Congress party.  This led to a surge in support for the Congress party in polls taken earlier this year.  As a result, it not only appeared as if there would be no way for the BJP and its allies to win a majority of seats in the parliament, but that there was even a chance that they could find themselves removed from power altogether.

In response to its sagging poll numbers and a border clash with Pakistan that followed more unrest in Kashmir, Prime Minister Modi and his BJP flashed their Hindu nationalist credentials in a bid to rally support from those voters who backed them in 2014.  This shift towards the right paid major dividends for the BJP, as in the final weeks of the election campaign, the party’s poll numbers surged.   As a result, the party went into the election confident that it could remain in power for another five years, even if it needed help from smaller regional parties to form a new government.  In fact, few commentators gave the BJP a chance of matching its achievement from 2014 in which the party won an absolute majority of seats in the parliament all by itself.

When the results of the six-week national election were finally released, the scale of the BJP’s victory caught everyone by surprise.  Not only did the BJP win an outright majority for the second election in a row, but it increased its number of seats in the parliament from 282 to 303 and its share of the vote from 31.3% in 2014 to 37.5% in 2019.  When its allies in the National Democratic Alliance are added to this total, the BJP and its partners ended up winning 353 of the 542 seats in the parliament, a very solid majority.  In contrast, Congress slumped to its second consecutive crushing electoral defeat on the national stage.  This time, the Congress party won just 52 seats in the parliament (an increase of eight seats from 2014) and just 19.5% of the vote.  Its allies in the United Progressive Alliance did little better and together, they won just 91 seats in the parliament.  The only other political alliance to make a major impact in this election was the Federal Front that consists of nine regional parties.  It won 65 seats in the parliament, allowing it to nearly catch the Congress party in terms of presence in the national parliament.

A number of factors contributed to the late surge in support for the BJP party and its allies that allowed them to win a sweeping victory.  The most important of these factors was the emergence of national security as the leading issue in this election.  Thanks to the unrest in Kashmir and the clashes with Pakistan earlier this year, the BJP was able to gain support due to its hardline stance on security issues and India’s relationship with Pakistan.  Another factor was the BJP’s ability to use Hinduism as a vote-winner, particularly in rural areas of the country.  On the economic front, Prime Minister Modi was able to point to a number of reforms enacted by his government in recent years and the fact that India is now the world’s fastest-growing large economy. Altogether, this allowed Prime Minister Modi and his BJP party to win a large share of the vote from rural areas, the private sector and among Hindu nationalists.

As Prime Minister Modi and his government prepare for a second term in office, there are a number of crucial issues that they will have to face in the coming years.  For most Indians, the leading issue will remain the economy, as the government will have to find ways to maintain and boost economic growth in order to create jobs and reduce poverty in India.  Furthermore, India faces a number of internal and external threats to its economy that could prove to be a major challenge in the years ahead. Another critical issue facing the BJP-led government is the environment, as India is facing a multitude of environmental challenges, including air and water pollution, dwindling water resources and the effects of overcrowding.  Internationally, the Indian government faces many challenges as well, including managing relations with long-time rival Pakistan to dealing with China’s growing assertiveness in the Indian Ocean and other areas that India’s considers within its sphere of influence.  Finally, Prime Minister Modi will have to determine just what India’s role in the world will be, something that his predecessors struggled with in previous decades.

In 2019, the BJP party became the first political party in India to win two consecutive majorities in the parliament since the Congress party achieved that feat in 1980 and 1984.  As a result, Prime Minister Modi now enjoys a greater deal of control over the Indian government than any Indian leader in decades. While there are many challenged facing India today, the prime minister and his government are likely to be focused on managing the Indian economy more than any other.  By the year 2050, India will be home to nearly 1.8 billion people, an increase of more than 400 million over India’s current population.  As a result, two issues are likely to dominate Indian politics in the coming years, job creation and the environment.  Other issues that will have to be dealt with by Prime Minister Modi’s government include the balancing of internal ethnic and religious relations, and the growing external challenges that are emerging around India’s borders.  It is therefore little surprise that many consider running the Indian government to be one of the toughest jobs in the world.  Thanks to Indian voters, Prime Minister Modi and his government will be tasked with that difficult job for the next five years.