India finishes midterm election

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In the last two months of 2018, the most important elections in the run-up to the 2019 general elections in India took place in five different states. It was a litmus test to the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and a possible preview of the general elections that are expected to take place in six months.

The arrival of Narendra Modi on the table of world leaders in 2014 was the beginning of a wave of big wins for right-wing politicians around the world, like President Donald Trump in the United States and President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Perhaps studying how his tenure has progressed could give political analysts a rough template of what to expect from these politicians.

Five states went to the polls: Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Nagaland, and Telangana. Three of them were ruled by the BJP, the current party in power at the central level: Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan, all part of the Hindi heartland, equivalent to the Rust Belt states in the U.S. In fact, those three states had overwhelmingly voted in favor of BJP in the 2014 Parliamentary elections. However, the 2018 State Legislature elections saw a different outcome, as the three states voted BJP out and elected Congress to power. Granted, Parliamentary and State Legislative elections are different, yet with only six months left for the general elections, it is ample reason for the Prime Minister’s party to be worried.

The elections can be viewed as a warning to the party from the people, that the promises they made during the 2014 elections of improved economic conditions for the middle class, elimination of corruption, and increased safety for women haven’t yet come to fruition.

When the 2014 elections took place, one of the reasons for Modi’s win had been his personal charisma: his image as a strongman who will not yield to foreign pressure, and the reports, drummed up by BJP’s brilliant PR and election management, that his rule in the state of Gujarat had led to its increased prosperity. The bigger reasons, however, were the failures of the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government led by the Congress.

The UPA had been in power since 2004 and in the run-up to 2014, there had been a huge anti-incumbency sentiment sweeping the masses. There was frustration that multiple corruption scams were taking place and that the leaders of the nation seemed to do nothing about it. Violence against women was on the rise and the 2012 Nirbhaya Rape case, in which a young woman was raped brutally on a moving bus in the nation’s capital, led to massive outrage that resulted in Congress losing most of its female voters. Amidst all of this came Narendra Modi with his sparkling track record in Gujarat and his promise to change the status quo — to make India great again.

Winning 282 seats, BJP had secured a simple majority, and as the leading member of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition, they had 336 of the 543 seats in the lower house of the Parliament. It was a big win, considering that the last time any party had won the elections without having to form a coalition was back in 1984.

The Congress appeared to be decimated. Referred to as the Grand Old Party, its days seemed numbered. A 2019 victory for Narendra Modi looked as though it was all but inevitable. However, the party bounced back in the 2018 midterm elections. Breaking into traditional BJP fortresses in the Hindi heartland, it proved that the BJP still has cause to worry about the upcoming elections.

Primary causes for the Congress’s victory were not just BJP’s failure to deliver on its promises but also some of the most prominent economic decisions they made in the last 4 years — especially demonetization, which banned about 80 percent of the currency in circulation in a poorly-planned attempt to curb corruption and the poor implementation of Goods and Services Taxes (GST’s). Added in were also some of the biggest financial frauds in the country’s history, like the case of the Punjab National Bank where businessman Nirav Modi and his associates had defrauded the bank for approximately 40 million USD, and managed to escape the country after that. He’d even met Prime Minister Modi in Davos a couple weeks before news of the fraud broke. However, Nirav Modi will only be joining a list of fraudulent businessmen who had fled India to London like Lalit Modi and Vijay Mallya who’d all fled in the last four years, blatantly undermining Modi’s anti-government promises.

Another possible factor that contributed to the BJP defeat could be the fact that the BJP had concentrated on religious and caste-based conflict rather than addressing issues that are facing the people of the states such as the agrarian crisis, the crippling debt being faced by the farmers, and the collapse of the small-scale industries in rural areas post-demonetization. Much like how Trump had raised the caravan as a constant talking point in his campaign for the midterm elections, the BJP and its IT Cell started branding all government critics as “Urban Maoists.” Meanwhile, the opposition focused not only on countering these tactics by the BJP, but also managed to make policy issues the main talking points in their own campaigns that ensured that the opposition is more than just the parties that are not the BJP but also are strong contenders in their own right. There was an increased tilt of minority voter groups towards the opposition, which also was one of the major factors for BJP’s defeat.

BJP’s, and therefore Modi’s, prospects for 2019 are definitely bleaker than they were only a couple months ago. But they can’t and shouldn’t be written off just yet. Modi’s image as a strongman and his fanbase are still almost as strong as before. Plus, there are still doubts about whether the opposition can still organize themselves to fight on a national level. BJP is an election-machine. And to counter the joint forces of Modi and Amit Shah is the real challenge. Put together with the fact that in the next five months, the government could enact various legislations that cater to different voter groups in different states and regions to secure their votes, BJP’s game is not over yet, as proven by the recent 10 percent reservation for economically weaker sections that was approved by the government.

One can expect the same to happen in the United States, as 2020 elections near and with a similar defeat suffered by the Republicans in the midterms in the House. In the run-up to 2020, there will be legislation that will be made to cater to Trump’s voter base, to ensure that they will vote for him. But the real game changer would be how the Democrats approach this election. If they project themselves as merely the anti-Trump party, chances are that they won’t win. Democrats should rise up as beyond being the reactionary party to one that has its own strong policy agendas that resonate with its voters.

Perhaps the 2019 general elections in India, which will also be the first time that people born in this century will be voting, will provide answers for both Republicans and Democrats on how to approach the 2020 elections.