The American election of 2020 is still 600 days away, yet even in the British press there is at least one article a day on any declared or even potential candidates to challenge Donald Trump. Yet very little focus has been given by the international press to the biggest election in human history that will take place this spring. India is the world biggest democracy with almost 900 million registered voters and this year’s Lok Sabha elections (India’s Lower House of Parliament) is a wide open contest, with no clear winner in sight. Before we move forward, let us recognise the important role Imperial College has played in India’s widely respected Election Commission. It was an alumnus of our university, Sukumar Sen, who served as independent India’s first Chief Election Commissioner and was tasked to do the improbable: conduct a multi-party election in a country that’s 80% illiterate in 1950. Of the many challenges that await India in the coming decades, the survival of democracy is not one of them. In the last 70 years each succeeding government has peacefully transferred power. This by no means was a pre-ordained feat – India’s neighbourhood is crowded with failed states, military dictatorships and the most powerful communist regime in the world.
In many regards the upcoming election is not one election, but many regional ones with regional leaders confronting regional issues. For India is a microcosm of the United Nations, with 22 major languages (with over a million native speakers each) and significant religious and cultural diversity.
In 2014, Narendra Modi’s party (BJP) achieved what no other Indian Prime Minister achieved since Rajiv Gandhi’s landslide victory in 1984, that is to win an outright parliamentary majority. Yet, if current polls are to be believed, then coalition governments are set to return. Coalitions in India are never between two parties, but as in 2004 to 2014, the governing coalition consisted of over 22 political parties with a further 8 parties providing external support. The current Lok Sabha consists of 36 parties – now that’s a true multi-party system.
In season three of Blackadder, set in Georgian England, Blackadder informs Baldrick (representing the common man) that to be an MP a criminal record is a prerequisite. Whilst the UK has moved away from the rotten boroughs of the nineteenth century, in India progress moves more slowly. The wide scale criminalisation of politics has meant that whichever party you vote for, one thing will always be constant, at least a third of MPs will have serious criminal cases against them. Now that is true bipartisanship. However, saying that, it would be lazy to fall victim to bothsidesism, and not recognise the significant differences and policy records.
A year and a half ago, the Modi-led BJP NDA (national democratic alliance) government was a shoe-in to win a second term, but a year is long time in politics. A disastrous demonetization resulting in over 80% of the circulated currency becoming invalidated overnight, a poor initial execution of a goods and service tax, and communal violence against religious minorities by Hindu fanatics emboldened by regional BJP leaders like Yogi Adityanath have dimmed the halo that Modi inherited in 2014. Furthermore, whilst the BJP government has seen genuine economic improvements with India achieving its best rank on the World Bank ease-of-doing-business index and strong GDP growth figures (+7%) whilst controlling inflation to below 3%, ultimately Modi has become a victim of unrealistic promises he made back in 2014. Persistently high joblessness, agricultural distress resulting in indebted farm workers and high non-performing asset ratio amongst India’s state-owned banks have stifled the true potential of India’s economy. Amidst this disappointed climate, the opposition has sensed its opportunity. To prevent a repeat of 2014, opposition parties have united to form an anti-BJP coalition, often with their past enemies, realising that only a united opposition can stop the Modi juggernaut. The past few months have seen the BJP falter in the Hindi-speaking heartland, which played a vital role in their success in 2014. From losing the chief-ministership in Madya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh to even loosing key by-elections in the all-important state of Uttar Pradesh.
Yet behind the facade of opposition unity, there is already tension brewing over who would be the prime-ministerial candidate. The only pan-India political party other than the BJP is the Congress party (which has ruled India for 50 of the 70 years since independence). Consequently, many Congress leaders have publicly said that any prime-ministerial candidate must come from within their party. This has irked many regional leaders who have ambitions of their own. Despite the re-energised spirit shown by Rahul Gandhi, president of the Congress party and the heir to the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi), the Indian youth have grown tired of dynastic politics. India is a young country, with 65% of the population under the age of 35 living in a highly competitive world. It is no wonder that in the last election, the youth overwhelmingly voted for the candidate who represented meritocracy. Modi didn’t have a famous political family nor wealth to buy his way to power - he is a self-made man who, in his youth, use to sell tea on railway stations.
In the wide canopy of mud-slinging attacks, the real issues facing voters are getting ignored. The rising economic inequality, the abject failure of state education and the absolute absence of public healthcare has been but on the back-burner of political discourse. Instead of real policy debates to reduce crime and the necessary judicial reforms or the necessary policies required to protect the environment, the Indian media has chosen to focus its attention to partisan politics devoid of any substance. Take the recent budget presented by the government – little attention has been paid to the details on how to finance the proposed universal healthcare scheme, despite there being numerous 24⁄7 news channels. However plenty of media coverage has been given to Mr Modi’s rhetorical zingers for example “BC stands for before Congress, and AD stands for after Congress”, with the Times of India dedicating their front page to it. Some things truly are international.
In the past, the Indian electorate has fallen victim to identity politics and voting for leaders based on religion, caste, language and ethnicity. However, time and time again, Indian voters have also demonstrated their ruthlessness against incumbents who failed to meet their promises. Will the same befall Modi?