India's Elections Begin, but Questions Over How They Will Play Out Remain

5 MINS READApr 12, 2019 | 09:30 GMT
Bharatiya Janata Party supporters gather to follow national party President Amit Shah on April 6, 2019, in the Indian city of Ahmedabad.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters gather to follow BJP National President Amit Shah during his roadshow on April 6, 2019 in Ahmedabad. India is holding a general election that will last nearly six weeks starting April 11, when hundreds of millions of voters will cast ballots in the world's biggest democracy.

Stratfor's geopolitical guidance provides insight on what we're watching out for in the week ahead.

India's general election began April 11. The world's largest democratic exercise will take place in multiple phases over the next several weeks. Nine hundred million eligible voters will choose 543 members of the Lok Sabha, parliament's lower house. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seeking another term after its 2014 victory broke a quarter-century spell of coalition governments in India.

The Big Picture

India's general election will test the appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party. The country's rapidly expanding, $2.6 trillion economy requires an increasing number of jobs to employ the millions of Indians who annually enter the workforce. But tough reforms will be required to unleash the economy's full potential. Modi is therefore seeking another majority mandate, but a raft of opposition parties including the Indian National Congress are seeking to limit him to just one term.

Now, the party faces a resurgent, if disparate, opposition led by the Indian National Congress that seeks to dislodge Modi. Multiple dynamics are in play in Indian politics, including factors as ancient as the caste system and as modern as social media. As the elections unfold, here are some key questions to consider:

Can Modi Sweep Uttar Pradesh?

Uttar Pradesh is the prize in India's elections. The country's most populous state sends 80 representatives to the Lok Sabha, so the outcome here will play an outsized role in determining parliament's balance. In 2014, the BJP won 71 seats in the northern Indian state, accounting for a quarter of its overall tally. Three years later, the BJP's prospects further brightened when it won state elections in Uttar Pradesh. An unlikely alliance between the state's dominant, and rival, political organizations, the Samajwadi and Bahujan Samaj parties, now poses an additional challenge to the BJP.

If the Congress party can take votes away from those parties, the BJP will benefit. Caste also plays a central role in Indian politics. The BJP, historically an upper-caste party, is trying to build upon its success in garnering a substantial share of lower-caste votes in 2014.

Will India Return to Government by Coalition?

If India returns to a coalition government, the already-difficult task of achieving consensus for reforms will become even more challenging. Although the BJP's 282 seats were enough to give it the majority in 2014, it still ran as part of the National Democratic Alliance. If the BJP fell short of a majority and was compelled to form a government through the National Democratic Alliance, the alliance partners whose support would be crucial for the government's survival would gain more power. An outright BJP parliamentary majority, by contrast, would facilitate Modi's pathway to key economic reforms, though various obstacles would still remain.

Land and labor reforms, which touch upon more emotionally charged issues than tax reform, will be far more politically challenging for Modi to pass.

Either way, the BJP will still face opposition in the Rajya Sabha, India's upper house, where the party will remain in the minority. And unlike the Modi government's landmark achievement on tax reform, an arcane subject not as likely to incite Indian voters, pending land and labor reforms that touch upon more emotionally charged issues would be far more politically challenging to pass, parliamentary advantages notwithstanding.

National Security vs. Development

The BJP is emphasizing national security and cultural identity in its election manifesto. Though Modi's "Make in India" campaign has failed to produce the tens of millions of jobs voters expected, February airstrikes against Pakistan have boosted his status — sentiments the prime minister hopes will win votes. The BJP has also pledged to rescind a constitutional amendment granting autonomy to Muslim-majority Kashmir. Though ideological issues like Kashmir draw votes, the party has taken a pragmatic approach on actually implementing them thus far; the BJP would have to balance the politics of polarization with the need to safeguard investor sentiment before acting on ideology.

The development debate will also be crucial in shaping the election's outcome. Stagnant crop prices are fueling agrarian anger at Modi. To address this, the BJP in February announced a $10.5 billion cash handout plan for small farmers and renewed a pledge to double farmers' incomes by 2022. By contrast, a centerpiece of the Congress party's development pitch is a proposal to grant a cash handout to the poorest 20 percent of India's families. Both parties, meanwhile, have offered to reserve a third of parliamentary seats for women. Political equations in Indian politics always involve state-level campaigns involving the complex mathematics of caste. But other factors that can impact the outcome involve the youth vote — there will be 45 million first-time voters in this election — and a corruption case before the Supreme Court tying Modi to a French fighter jet deal.

The Role of Misinformation

The proliferation of mobile phones and internet connectivity in India has broadened the reach of social media, as well as the spread of misinformation. India boasts the most Facebook and YouTube users worldwide, and social media is emerging as an arena for intense political competition. Modi frequents Twitter to share announcements with his 46 million followers, and the BJP's interactive app has been downloaded by 10 million.

Yet on April 1, Facebook removed over 600 nonofficial pages linked to both the BJP and the Congress party that it claims were spreading misinformation. And last year, WhatsApp made policy changes after rumors spread through the messaging app led to lynchings. In a charged atmosphere in which partisan elements will seek the edge, social media will play an important role in swaying voters, while regulators and big tech scramble to ensure a level playing field.

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