India’s general election kicks off on 11 April, and with more than 900 million eligible voters, 1 million polling stations and seven phases spread across five weeks, it will be the world’s largest exercise in democracy. Dr Gareth Price explains five things you should know about what to expect.

Chatham House
Apr 8 · 5 min read
The Indian Parliament building stands in the background behind a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. Photo: Getty Images.

Why are these elections important?

The Indian elections are important on two levels. First, the Indian elections are the biggest democratic event in history. This year, around 900 million Indians will be eligible to vote and around two-thirds of them are likely to do so.

Second, these elections are of particular importance because they are likely to determine the type of country India will be over the next decade or two. The opposition parties argue that they celebrate India’s diversity — of religions, languages and ethnicities. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), however, argues that this emphasis on division — a colonial legacy — has weakened India. It claims that the opposition parties first target the Muslim vote while side-lining Hindus in what is a Hindu-majority country.

The BJP’s aim is to consolidate all the Hindu votes although the party is not immune from playing ‘caste politics’ at the local level. Its intention to ‘strengthen’ India by prioritizing Hindus, however, by default makes the position of religious minorities — which account for around 20 per cent of the population — less secure.

An Indian man reads a Indian voting pamphlet during an awareness drive about the voting procedure in New Delhi. Photo: Getty Images.

Modi vs. who?

Incumbent Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s, popularity ratings are high — higher than those of his party. Consequently, the BJP will run a presidential style election campaign since Modi’s strengths compare favourably to the leaders of the opposition parties.

The BJP will focus its criticism in particular on the latest generation of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to run the Congress Party whereas the opposition parties are expected to run a more granular campaign focusing on local issues rather than on personalities.

The opposition comprises a number of mostly regional parties, along with the Congress Party, whose status as a ‘national’ party is under increasing threat. Back in 2014 it controlled 13 out of 29 Indian states, but by 2018, this had fallen to just two although it did perform well in state elections in December last year.

When the opposition parties compete among themselves, the rule has held in recent state and national elections that they lose to the BJP. When they unite they win. While alliances are in place in some states, India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, faces a three-way contest. More than any party’s record in office or electoral promises, this factor alone makes the BJP favourite to emerge as the largest party.

If the BJP and its allies fall short of a majority, post-election horse-trading will determine the next government. Expectations soared after the 2014 election in part because — for the first time in decades — a single party had won a majority. However, some of India’s peak years for economic growth have occurred when it has been run by apparently weak central governments. India is a federal system after all and how states are governed is at least as important as what happens in Delhi.

A final determinant of the election is likely to be cash. Indian elections are expensive operations with money doled out in the hope of attracting votes. While some question the effectiveness of this strategy, what seems clear is that the BJP will have much more money to spend than any other party.

Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, speaks at a public rally on 3 April 2019 in Kolkata, India. Photo: Getty Images.

Is it all about the economy?

Almost certainly, and if so, that probably benefits the opposition. In mid-March, 108 economists wrote a letter questioning the reliability of India’s economic statistics, arguing that they appeared to be being manipulated in a positive direction for political purposes. Many indices have been re-based making historical comparisons difficult while growth rate numbers appear at odds with other evidence.

If economic growth is being exaggerated, this would not be for the first time. In 2004 the BJP campaigned under the slogan ‘India shining’, and when enough Indians disagreed, it was out of power for a decade.

That said, even though the government has not lived up to pre-election promises, including a 50 per cent increase in farmers’ incomes, it will, not unreasonably, argue that it needs more time and that the main opposition party, Congress, has failed to deliver despite having ruled for decades.

An Indian officer walks past the entrance of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in Mumbai, India. Photo: Getty Images.

Why did India shoot down a satellite and why will this be important?

Probably for the same reason it conducted airstrikes further into Pakistan than it has since 1971 in response to a suicide attack in Kashmir — to project strength and demonstrate that, unlike in the past, India is now a force to be reckoned with.

In this endeavour it is helped by an increasingly jingoistic and uncritical media. Social media helps too. A BBC report last year argued that ‘Hindu power and revival of lost Hindu glory are being shared widely without any attempt at fact-checking’. In stressing national pride, the BJP is able to shape the terms of debate. If opposition politicians question India’s actual achievements, they can be accused of being anti-national. Recently, several politicians from the ruling party have even described opposition politicians as ‘pro-Pakistan’.

Still, while India’s exploits in space may appeal to the urban middle class, many poorer rural Indians may question the benefits for them of India’s new military capabilities. Concerningly, if the government fears the outcome of the election and at the same time believes that projecting strength against Pakistan is a vote-winner, logic implies that there is a serious risk of further tension before the election is over.

The Indian military communication satellite GSAT-7A is pictured as it is launched into orbit in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, India on 19 December 2018. Photo: Getty Images.

How will foreign policy play a role?

With the exception of Pakistan and China, not much. India’s politics is domestically-focused and economic issues such as job creation are far more important.

Possibly, however, the UK may feature in the campaign. In 1919, General Dyer ordered his troops to fire on a group of Sikhs gathered in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar where around 1,000 people were killed. The 100th anniversary of the massacre falls on 13 April 2019 — two days after the first round of voting — and India may use the anniversary to demand some kind of recompense.

An Indian army helicopter flies near the border with Pakistan. Photo: Getty Images.

Chatham House

The Royal Institute of International Affairs. An independent policy institute with a mission to help build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world.

Chatham House

Written by

The Royal Institute of International Affairs. An independent policy institute with a mission to help build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world.

Chatham House

The Royal Institute of International Affairs. An independent policy institute with a mission to help build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world.

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