India’s landmark election

Author: Raghbendra Jha, ANU

The scale of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) victory in India’s lower house (Lok Sabha) elections astounded all but the most optimistic of BJP supporters. The basic results have been repeated ad nauseam: the BJP won a majority in its own right — the first time any party has done so since 1984.

Together with its allies the BJP won 336 of 543 Lok Sabha seats. The numbers reflect a profound change that has occurred in the Indian polity — this has been the most unifying election for India in over a generation. The BJP won seats in parts of the country it existed only in name, such as Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and the North East. Even in Kerala its vote share went up significantly.

The BJP won more seats in the state of Uttar Pradesh than the Congress party did in the whole country.

The allies of the BJP collectively won more seats than the Congress’ entire United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The BJP had three allies at the start of the election process; by the end its National Democratic Alliance was 29 parties strong. Of the 84 seats reserved in the Lok Sabha for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (traditionally deprived sections of India) the BJP won 68. Muslims accounted for 20 per cent or more of the electorate in 38 seats won by the BJP. The Congress party is having difficulty in even claiming the status of the principal opposition party. An allegedly divisive figure like Narendrabhai Damodardas Modi has proved to be the most unifying politician since Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel!

So, why did the Congress and the UPA lose? There is no dearth of analysis and four causes are clear. First, at the start of the campaign for the 15th Lok Sabha in 2009 the UPA government promised to control inflation within 100 days. Five years later inflation is still high and this has hurt ordinary Indians severely. Second, the instances of mega-corruption with ministers’ alleged involvement dented the image of the ruling coalition. Third, as gleaned particularly from the vernacular press, important leaders had become alienated from the masses. Thus, at election time they failed to engage with the Indian electorate. Modi, the quintessential son of the soil and communicator par excellence, harped on these themes and additionally presented his record as chief minister of Gujarat.

Prior to the 2014 elections most people were resigned to expecting a fractious campaign divided along lines of caste, class, religion, language and region. When the Constitution of India was adopted in 1950 many sociologists and political scientists, as well as commentators on current affairs, criticised India’s decision to politically empower its people and predicted chaos. But the Indian electorate has proved far too astute and Indian democracy has blossomed remarkably. Confounding many political pundits, the new Indian government has a strong mandate that has overcome deep divisions.

Hence, come 26 May, we can expect a strong government to be sworn in. Prime Minister Modi has the capacity to govern effectively and restore confidence in India’s economy and its growth potential. Indian economic growth will pick up as the country is governed more effectively.

India can be expected to be more welcoming toward investment, particularly FDI. Collaborative work in India and elsewhere, including energy and mining ventures, should also get a fillip, while major changes to India’s trade policy are also anticipated. And India’s coal production is likely to go up, as there are indications that FDI will be welcomed in coal. Also, in order to augment domestic employment, there will be a concerted effort to have a manufacturing sector renaissance.

India currently has a stagnant manufacturing sector with much of the sector’s output coming from high value-added industries. The labour intensive low value-added manufacturing sector space being vacated by China (because of rising wages) can be filled by India if policy settings, particularly in the areas of infrastructure and labour law reforms, can be put into place expeditiously. To be successful, further negotiations on free trade agreements with India should take cognizance of these changes.

Raghbendra Jha is Professor of Economics, Head, Arndt-Corden Department of Economics, and Executive Director at the Australia South Asia Research Centre, The Australian National University.

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