Watch highlight clips and full video of this event on our YouTube channel here.
Today, The India Project at Brookings hosted a discussion previewing India’s national elections. Panelists looked at the context in which the elections are taking place, Indian public opinion in the run-up to the elections as reflected in a new Pew survey, the potential outcomes, as well as the impact on U.S.-India relations. Panelists included Sadanand Dhume, resident fellow at American Enterprise Institute; Richard Rossow, the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Bruce Stokes, director of the Global Economic Program at Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project; and Milan Vaishnav, an associate in the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Tanvi Madan, fellow in Foreign Policy and director of the India Project at Brookings, moderated the discussion.
Below are some highlights of what the participants said at the event. Get full event audio from the event’s page.
It’s worth considering the scale of these elections that has observers competing to come up with adjectives to describe their vastness and complexity. — Tanvi Madan
Madan opened the event with some data on the scale of India’s national elections:
It’s worth considering the scale of these elections that has observers competing to come up with adjectives to describe their vastness and complexity. And even has tourists traveling to India on election tourism packages to witness this event. This election involves over 814 million people that can vote. They will vote over, or a significant number of them will vote, over nine phases. The election started yesterday and will continue through May 12 with the results being declared on May 16. There are over 900,000 polling stations, all with electronic voting machines. And over 350 parties competing for 543 seats in the lower house of the Indian Parliament.
There’s a wide consensus among the most reliable polls that the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] is heading for a historic victory in these elections. — Sadanand Dhume
Dhume’s presentation focused on five things he and others predicted wrong related to Modi over the last year, and three additional questions to look at. First, a prediction:
There’s a wide consensus among the most reliable polls that the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] is heading for a historic victory in these elections. If you look at the CSDS numbers, and you look at the upper limit of their prediction for the BJP alone, not the NDA [National Democratic Alliance], it has risen over the last three months marginally, and it is currently at about 218 seats for the BJP alone. The NDA, depending on which allies you count, gets to about … the 240 to 255 mark. At any rate, what seems likely unless the polls turn out to be dramatically wrong, is that the BJP-led NDA will form the next government.
The five things we got wrong, he said, were: the “BJP would not nominate Modi” as their candidate for prime minister; many people believed that “Modi could not break out of Gujarat”; that “the caste arithmetic for the BJP would not add up” and that “Modi would not be seen broadly as what’s known in India as an ‘other backward class’ in the Hindi heartland”; that “Modi would run as a Hindu hardliner”; and, “the biggest myth,” that Modi “would be toxic to allies.”
Three questions “worth pondering,” Dhume said, are “how wrong will the polls be?”; “are we seeing something that is going to be permanent or long-term in Indian politics or are we seeing something that’s a one-off and special?”; and has “BJP basically pulled together a new social coalition?”
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Stokes shared survey results from a Pew Research poll on Indians’ views on the direction of their country and the elections. “Our primary finding about the mood of Indians,” he said:
is that they are in a very sour mood, which I think lends credence to the argument this may be a one-off election. We may not want to over-interpret whatever happens because people seem to be in a particularly sour mood, not only about the economy but about the stewardship of the government by the Congress Party. And it would probably actually take a second election to know whether there has been some transformation of the Indian electorate or not.
We ask this question all over the world: Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the direction of the country? We have found in many countries, especially in the United States, this is one of the best indicators of political outcomes. I can’t say that about India, but it is striking that 70 percent of Indians say they are dissatisfied with the direction of the country. So they are clearly frustrated.
Stokes later emphasized that “the mood of the electorate, at least from our survey, is pretty grim.” Continuing:
We then asked people about the election. I’d like to point out that unlike other surveys that have been done in India, our goal was not to predict how many seats the BJP or Congress might get in the Lok Sabha [lower house of India’s parliament]. Our goal was just to get a sense of whether people wanted change. Because our goal was different we asked different questions. There are plenty of surveys out there that try to predict how many BJP seats there’s going to be in Tamil Nadu, etc. That was not our goal. What we asked people was, Who would you like to see lead the next coalition government? And as you can see, by 3-to-1 the public said we would prefer a government led by the BJP. Now I will point out to you that that doesn’t mean that people are going to vote for the BJP by 3-to-1. You could very well in some state vote for the party that your father voted for, vote for the party that got your sister a job. It’s a local or a regional party, it’s the party you’ve always voted for. It’s just that you would prefer that they then coalesce with the BJP to run the next government.
On a question about favorability, or not, of political figures in India, Narendra Modi ranked high, as Stokes explained:
We then did a question where we asked just a favorable or an unfavorable of various people in the political scene in India. Bear in mind we did not ask people to choose. In other words, if you liked Modi you could also like Rahul Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi. You could like various other figures. What was interesting was that the favorability of Modi was so overwhelming. It’s not that Rahul Gandhi’s favorability was that low. Many politicians including, by the way, Barack Obama in the United States, would love to have a roughly 50 percent favorability rating. But it’s just that at this moment the favorability rating of Narendra Modi is much higher. And again look at the favorability rating in rural areas, look at the favorability rating among poorer people. These again would be groups that conceivably might have some questions about Modi and they do not.
The conventional wisdom is given that clutch of seats [230-250] going to the NDA, they would not have much difficulty forming the next government … and forming that government with Narendra Modi as the next prime minister of India. — Milan Vaishnav
Vaishnav discussed what Sadanand laid out earlier as the most likely scenario:
Which is that the BJP on its own would get around 200 seats. That together with its NDA allies, both old and new, that tally would go up to 230 plus. There’s a range between 230 and some say as high as 250. Basically, the conventional wisdom is given that clutch of seats going to the NDA, that they would not have much difficulty forming the next government, which would require 272 seats out of 543—that’s the halfway mark—and forming that government with Narendra Modi as the next prime minister of India. And that seems to be where the polls are converging and I think probably now the most likely scenario.
He covered two additional scenarios: that the BJP significantly underperforms, making it “difficult for the BJP to form the next government with Narendra Modi as its face,” thus forcing Modi to “be pushed aside in favor of somebody who is seen as a more compromise candidate.” Or that it “massively underperforms,” leading to a coalition of the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] and regional parties to perhaps form “what essentially what would be an anti-BJP coalition.” He finds this third scenario the least likely.
Modi … likes to build stuff, and building stuff does not take parliamentary approval. — Richard Rossow
Rossow focused on the three scenarios, and especially on what a BJP-led government “would look like in terms of economic development and U.S.-India relations.” He said that “If a third front government comes to power,”
If a third front government comes to power, I think we’ll see something akin to anarchy. I don’t think I’ll spend much time dwelling on what would happen in that scenario. It happened once in India’s past and it wasn’t an effective government, and as soon as the Congress pulled the plug on their support it fell [and] I don’t think anything too different would happen this time if that scenario comes to pass. If Congress manages to squeak out a victory and remain in power, I think with Rahul Gandhi as the prime minister, you are unlikely to see a dramatic variation on the policy and foreign policy front that we’ve seen so far from Congress thus far. A focus on social programs. It will be further commitment by the electorate that indeed they are going to continue to vote for being given things rather than a focus on growth. I think they will have an even more difficult time moving a parliament-focused reform agenda. So I think largely you won’t see any new initiatives on foreign policy, necessarily. And in terms of the economic legislative front it will be roughly equivalent to what we’ve seen in the past.
However, Rossow said in the BJP victory scenario:
if the BJP were to win and Narendra Modi were to be the prime minister … what kind of economic reform program will they have? There’s been a lot of buzz so far out there that in fact it won’t be an effective one. That you’ll have another coalition government, that coalition allies may be just as unlikely to work with BJP. But actually if you look at Modi’s track record, and you look at too what the BJP did the last time in power, it was a lot less parliamentary focused.
Modi … likes to build stuff, and building stuff does not take parliamentary approval. So a reform program based on building infrastructure, on getting stuff out of the ground, on relentless follow up as he’s done in Gujarat, which will be a little bit tougher to do at the center but not impossible, I think actually it’s a reform program that you can carry out a lot easier than a legislative-focused reform program.
Over the past year, the India Project at Brookings hosted two other events that looked at India’s elections: