Forum

India finishes their primary elections

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article on the Indian midterm elections that had just taken place. The results were stunning. The Indian National Congress Party (Congress) had defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Hindi heartland, equivalent to the U.S.'s rust belt, leading political analysts to speculate that the tide has turned in Congress’ favor.

They had reason to believe so: a massive defeat in an election just six months before the general elections, the slowing economy, growing unemployment, disillusionment due to unfulfilled poll-time promises, and growing momentum among the opposition parties had all culminated in the form of that upset for the BJP. The article that I wrote back in January took a neutral view on the issue of whether Modi will win a second term, conceding that it may not be the landslide victory that people thought it would be in 2014, but that he had a fair shot at winning it, considering the fact that he and his right-hand-man, Amit Shah, combined are an election machine.

General elections in India are the largest democratic exercise in the world. As they approached, the tide had turned back in the BJP’s favor, and most polls predicted a BJP win. They were all right. Modi did win — and with a landslide margin at that, beating even my expectations that the opposition might just put up a spirited fight at the very least. BJP increased its Lok Sabha (the Lower Chamber) tally from 282 to a whopping 303 seats. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP stands at 353 of the 543 elected seats.

For a party that had lost elections in three of its homebase states only 6 months ago, this was a spectacular win. Many of the issues that caused the BJP’s defeat in December 2018 still existed in April and May 2019, and yet they won. Some key events played a major role in ensuring the success of BJP: issues of national security, caste dynamics, and fractured opposition, to list a few. The election also debunked several expectations of what would take place, namely that a large number of religious minorities would vote in BJP’s favor this time as well. This baffled several analysts who had speculated that persecution of religious minorities by right-wing fringe groups, and disappointing policies related to women would translate into votes for the Opposition. The BJP’s carefully-built coalitions in different states with local parties, the intricate caste and religious calculations before fielding candidates in constituencies all paid off in their favor, as the Opposition was left unprepared and in disarray.

BJP’s second win has proved that Indians, though disgruntled over our apathetic economy, are willing to ignore it for the sake of national security. The terror attacks in the Jammu and Kashmir states which killed Indian army soldiers and the retaliatory airstrikes in Pakistan conducted by India in February led to increased support for the BJP in the run-up to the elections. Social media sites saw renewed activity as people from both countries faced off in the virtual world, trading insults, even as military and diplomatic tensions rode up. The way the situation de-escalated later solidified the party’s support base and moderates who were concerned about the economic issues plaguing the country put those on the back burner in the interest of national security.

Modi is a charismatic leader who knows how to build his brand as a strong-man, with even his staunchest opponents agreeing on that. He also has the backing of one of the world’s largest grassroots-level organizations in Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu right-wing ideological organization. BJP is the political arm of the RSS, and Modi himself is an RSS alum. Having a dedicated grassroots level organization at the national level that deploys its dedicated volunteers for campaign work at a local level, visiting the homes of people in different constituencies, personally listening to their grievances, is a massive advantage, one that none of the other parties currently enjoy.

Perhaps the Congress Party had that advantage a couple of decades ago, but the party is now aging, most of its leaders hovering around 65. This is especially old considering India has the largest youth population in the world right now. The Congress party is a slow, aging party that refuses to play catch up with new methods of electioneering, like social media or data analytics. It’s another advantage that the BJP enjoys, thanks to RSS's large youth base.

Caste dynamics came into play as well, as I had predicted in my January article. Without getting into the nitty-gritty of the complicated caste system in India, the introduction of 10 percent reservations to upper-caste people (basically increasing affirmative action for upper-caste people) swayed a significant number of upper-caste votes to BJP.

The election results surprised me not so much by the end result as by its overwhelming mandate for the BJP. Of course, I continue to have concerns with many of the government’s policies. As a recession nears, that concern only grows. But I choose to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I continue to be peeved by Atishi Marlena’s loss in the East Delhi constituency to BJP’s Gautam Gambhir. Atishi has been credited with Delhi’s education policy reforms and worked for an honorarium amount of 1 Rupee (0.014 USD). Yet she lost to Gambhir, a former cricketer. In that moment, and even now, it feels to me like the loss of meritocracy.

But I'm still optimistic about the future of democracy in India, and as a new generation comes of age, hopefully, we will start taking over the reins and lead the country to a better future.