“A historic result.” “A remarkable achievement.” “Hard to exaggerate the degree of change.” These are just a few of the comments made by panelists at an event today on the outcome of India’s recent national elections in which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, won a majority on its own.
Tanvi Madan, director of the Brookings India Project, which sponsored the event, moderated the panel discussion with India experts from other think tanks. She put the election aftermath into perspective in her opening remarks, citing at least four reasons why the outcome is “historic”:
For those who have been following Indian politics, this has been quite a year. And quite an exciting year. It culminated in an election where over five weeks, 550 million Indians—66 percent of the electorate—turned out to vote. And what we got at the end of it is a historic result. … [L]et me outline a few reasons why this is historic and why change is in the air.
First, this next government will replace the longest-serving Indian government since 1977.
[Second,] the BJP having won a majority on its own can form the first non-Congress Party, non-coalition government in India’s history.
Third, it will, unusually for India, be led by an individual who has been the chief minister of a state for nearly a dozen years.
And finally, as Mr. Modi himself has pointed out, he will be the first Indian prime minister born after India’s independence.
Milan Vaishnav from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that the 66 percent voter participation rate is a figure all Indians “deserve to be proud of.” He spoke about the exit polls and how the BJP victory “redraws the political map.” He said that the exit polls did predict a BJP-led coalition “would do quite well,” the only polling firm that got the Lok Sabha seat projections right was Today’s Chanakya. Vaishnav explained the significance:
So we see the BJP-led NDA going from 159 seats to 335, which is just a mind-boggling figure for those of you who follow Indian politics. We’re still trying to wrap our heads around what that means. While the UPA goes down to just 60 seats which is just a devastating blow that few if any could have predicted. And then the remaining balance going to a wide variety of regional players.
And this quite literally redraws the political map. … This is really a remarkable achievement by any measure.
Vaishnav cited three factors to explain BJP’s huge victory: (1) a surge in support from urban centers; (2) the youth vote; and (3) BJP’s performance with the “OBC voter,” or, other backward caste, who increasingly represents the Indian swing voter. Still, Vaishnav observed, BJP “is struggling to attract the support of minority groups.” Nine percent of Muslims, 8 percent of Christians and only slightly more Sikhs voted for BJP.
Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute spoke about the political lessons of the outcome. He noted “four big things”:
(1) “This was India’s first ‘presidential election.'”
In many ways the BJP succeeded in making this a referendum not just on the not just on the misgovernance of Manmohan Singh, but on Narendra Modi. That’s a huge shift, I believe that there is no going back. You are not going to see elections in India fought in the old way again. This has been extremely successful for the BJP. Not projecting a presidential candidate and in fact having a weak candidate in the face of Rahul Gandhi has proved catastrophic for the Congress. I think this is a turning point in Indian politics in his regard, at least in post-1989 coalition era.
(2) “India’s polity has swung decisively to the right.”
Even when the BJP won more seats than the Congress in 1996, 1998, and 1999, it never won more votes. For the first time, the BJP has won more votes than the Congress. It’s got about 1 in 3 voters in India voted for the BJP. Only about 1 in 5 chose Congress. If you factor in votes for the NDA, which were effectively for the BJP and Modi as prime minister, it comes to a little bit less than 40 percent of national vote, which is quite staggering. …
Not just in terms of social groups … but also in terms of region, you have this rightward tilt and you have the BJP emerging at least for now as the natural party of governance in India. Of course it remains to be seen how many of these gains are long lasting and how many are temporary … but for now this is really quite dramatic.
(3) A serious crisis for the Congress Party and the Gandhi dynasty. Dhume noted that Congress is down to 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, and even though they won 20 percent of the vote, “the way people think of this is really in terms of seats.” They don’t even have enough seats for the leader of Congress to claim leader of the opposition, because the party failed to capture 10 percent of seats in the chamber.
What does this mean for the Congress Party and Nehru-Gandhi family? Congress has in fact bounced back from severe defeats in the past, none of these defeats has been remotely this severe and never before has there been such a serious question mark over the quality of the leadership of the Congress party.
(4) The “decimation of the left.” Two of the leading leftist parties, the CPM and the CPI, are down to ten seats together, the lowest since Indian independence. “The question for the Indian left,” Dhume said, “is really one of survival.”
Dhume said that based on these four factors, “many things are just going to be open for debate and open for contestation in India in a way they have not been.” He added that:
I think you are going to see very, very interesting debates on how far [Modi] can move on economic policy in particular. Because now he has a mandate. And the general rule of thumb was that if the BJP had fallen short, or if the NDA had fallen short, we could have expected a more cautious approach. But with 282 seats for the BJP alone with the first single-party mandate since 1984, with the crushing win for the coalition, and with the fact that you have this politician who really emerged from nowhere, completely different class background from most of his predecessors—there have been chief ministers before who have become prime minister but there haven’t been people who used their base as a chief minister and really campaigned for it in this sort of U.S. style and ridden to the prime minister’s office.
Richard Rossow, from the Centre for Strategic & International Studies, offered a perspective on the BJP’s victory from the point of view of constraintsas well as opportunities it may face. The constraints include the Rajya Sabha, parliament’s upper chamber, the party’s limited control of Indian states, fiscal limitations, and constraints internal to BJP itself.
BJP and its allies will hold about 26 percent of seats in the upper house, Rossow said, while Congress and its allies, or at least anti-BJP parties, will hold 38 percent of seats. “The upper house can block legislation if they don’t approve of it,” Rossow noted.
In terms of party control of India’s 29 states (28 states plus the upcoming new state of Telangana) and union territories, Rossow said that BJP plus coalition allies will have 7 or 8, while Congress has 11 states. “BJP will still be in a relatively weak position” and this deficit will “preclude constitutional amendment,” he added.
On fiscal constraints, Rossow said that Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat, was known to give big tax breaks to companies that chose to locate in his state. It “will be a bit more limited than what he saw in Gujarat,” Rossow said. On the other hand, he said, “that will also encourage the BJP on a policy they had back in 1998-2004 of disinvesting state assets and that is critical in a lot of industries., government-owned companies still control a lot of those industries.”
Finally, Rossow described potential constraints on the BJP from inside the party, especially those concerning local content rules for manufacturing. “To think,” Rossow said:
that Modi is going to come in and on Day One wipe those away and say, for solar, for heavy power equipment, for the other areas where you have local content rules, that he’s going to wipe those away, it will be a battle internally. Even if he supports doing that, there is a large group within his own party that that kind of plays to their base interests.
The final speaker was Dhruva Jaishankar of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, who spoke about the foreign policy aspects of BJP’s and Modi’s victory in the elections. “It’s interesting,” Jaishankar began, “to look back at some of the commentary over the last year or so on foreign policy and BJP, and on foreign policy and Narendra Modi in particular, because he’s been written off as something of a novice on foreign policy.” Modi has been described, according to Jaishankar, as anywhere from having little foreign policy experience, to “someone who treats foreign policy as an afterthought,” to a “reflexive hardliner.” And yet, said Jaishankar, “it could be that all of these assessments are wrong.”
Jaishankar explains that in various speeches and interviews, and looking at Modi’s record, there is a way to gain insight into his world view. “The first thing you notice,” Jaishankar said:
is that [Modi] emphasizes that foreign policy begins at home. He has called for strong patriotic government at the center. He has drawn attention to the problems of stagnancy. And he has an interesting line in one speech … where he said, “I believe a strong economy is the driver of a effective foreign policy. We have to put our own house in order so the world is attracted to us.” He added in that same speech … “The current dysfunction in Delhi has prevented even much needed military modernization and the upgradation of India’s defense infrastructure.” So this is a pretty clear statement of intent that foreign policy begins at home.
“This could be translated into a sort of splendid isolation,” Jaishankar continued, adding:
India needs to get its house in order, focus inwards, and the rest of the world can continue doing what it’s doing. Again we don’t really see that reflected in any of his statements. In fact he acknowledges in some ways the realities of globalization. He said in response to one question, he said, we are not living in the 18th or 19th centuries, but in the 21st century. Elsewhere, he said in a speech, “Now foreign policies are shaped by commercial interests.” He said India can offer a lot to the world and he remarked in particular on India’s ability to create institutions and intellectual property.
Jaishankar then explored the possible meanings of these views to India’s major relationships, with the United States, Pakistan, and China, and it’s other important relationships, notably with Japan, Israel, and Singapore.
“What I do think you see in all of these statements that I’ve quoted from,” Jaishankar concluded:
is in some ways a much more clearly articulated and thought-through world view than in fact many give [Modi] credit for. The last five years have been lackluster by any measure on the foreign policy front with the possible exception of the relationship with Japan. And so I think a useful thing to do is see this as an opportunity, both in this town and in other capitals, for a new bargain with India.
Get a full video archive plus audio of the event here.
The event was the final in a series of Brookings India Project events on the 2014 national elections in India, including:
It’s a possible geopolitical gang-up against China. We need to rally the democratic world together. It cannot be a race to the bottom like a new Cold War... [India] wants the US to have ‘a Goldilocks approach’ for putting pressure on China. Not to press too hard to make the situation go out of control and not too little to be ineffective in containing China.
The Biden team understands that lecturing India publicly or threatening it publicly will not go down well, and will not achieve any change that they want to see... I suspect you might have a Biden Administration that is more likely to bring these issues up privately [than the Trump Administration].