A week ago, the world’s largest exercise in democracy concluded. This exercise involved some 11 million election workers, who braved summer heat, Himalayan cold, deserts, jungles, glaciers and even Maoist attacks, to make sure that some 879 million eligible persons could cast their vote through the ballot or through 2.3 million electronic machines. At stake were 543 seats in the national parliament – or the Lok Sabha – and several state-level legislative elections in the country’s 29 states and 7 Union Territories. These were being contested by representatives of some 500 political parties (of over 2,300 registered parties!).
In the end, the election saw a 67.11% voter turnout (up from 66.4% in 2014). Here, some fifteen states registered a voter turnout higher than 70% and, half a dozen states and territories recorded a turnout higher than 80%. Interestingly, for the first time in India’s history, female voter turnout matched exactly the male turnout. Looking at the scale of the electoral exercise, and such figures as have presently been stated, it would appear that the over $7 billion that the Indian state spent to ensure this election happened were well spent.
However, not many – at least in Pakistan – would agree that the gargantuan exercise was necessarily something to appreciate. This is, in particular, because of the results the Indian elections threw up. Whether or not one personally agrees – or disagrees – with the general sentiment surrounding the results is, to my mind, really beside the point. In these early days after the election, and as events are spiraling rapidly around us, it would be better for us to try to understand what actually happened, what it means at present and what it may mean in the future. In my opinion, it is after we have fully grasped the scope of the May’s events that we would be able to formulate an informed opinion and a holistic response to what happened in India. This would be an especially worthwhile endeavor because the scale of voter turnout ensures that the trends as we may identify would be steeped in consequential authenticity and in enduring long-term implications. This series will, then, focus on furnishing an objective understanding of what happened in the election and what it means, before offering analysis – instead of first expressing shock and awe, and then offering analysis to justify the shock and awe.
With the above said, I will begin at the beginning. The Indian General Election of 2019 saw the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win 303 seats in the Lok Sabha, and its allies another 50, a 21% and 17% increase respectively. This has made the BJP only the second party in the history of India to come back to power back-to-back and has made its be-all-end-all, Narenda Modi, the first Indian Prime Minister in history whose party was re-elected with full majority, with a double digit increase in its vote share plussed into it.
Even as most commentary has focused on the above, what has, sometimes, been missing from it is the sheer abjectness of the defeat of the opposition. In fact, what is even more poignant is the utter collapse of the opposition to the BJP in particular. We may note that the next biggest party after the BJP is the Indian National Congress (INC), which won 52 seats. This number is so small that it does not even meet the 10% threshold (55 seats) that at least one party must achieve to be notified as the official opposition party in the Indian parliament. What this means in simple terms is that, there is quite literally no official opposition party in India now – and there will be none for another five years!
In any case, the third biggest party is the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) with 23 seats. The DMK is followed by the All India Trinamool Congress and Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party, both of which have 22 seats, and, finally, by the Shiv Sena, which has 18 seats. When you compare the BJP’s 303 with the next five biggest vote getters (52, 23, 22, 18), the scale of the BJP’s victory becomes apparent. In fact, we may observe that the total seats of next five biggest parties put together comes to just 137. In other words, the BJP alone dwarfs the next five parties put together nearly two and a half times!
Make no mistakes, the Congress tally is, for example, an 8% gain on its 2014 performance. Yet, in 2019, the margin with which the BJP beat the next biggest party increased from 238 seats to 251 seats, an increase of 5.46%. Similarly, the BJP’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) increased the share of seats in the Lok Sabhafrom 38.5% in 2014 to 45% in 2019. What this means is that the BJP and its allies have significantly increased their control over India. In fact, the situation, now, is so dismal that the total seats share of parties outside the NDA and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) – which include at least 14 major parties, including the Trinamool Congress, Aam Aadmi Party, Samajwadi Party, the communist left, and independents – has gone down dramatically by 48%.
Therein lies an important observation. In the 2014 election, BJP-led NDA and Congress-led UPA had 396 seats between the two of them, representing 72.93% of the Indian parliament. In 2019, however, seat tally of the two alliances has gone up to 444, representing 81.77% of the Indian parliament. This means that the Indian polity is clearly moving towards a neater orientation, as opposed to the chaotic mess that nearly 500 contestant parties represented. In other words, it would appear now that in India there is a deepening perception that the individual voter must choose between two broad worldviews – one embodied by BJP’s NDA and the other by the UPA coalition. Alternates are being hammered out of the mix.
In this, to say that the BJP has dramatically increased its share is to state the obvious. However, what is most interesting is to look at the performance of the parties that comprise the NDA. In 2014, non-BJP parties in the NDA won a total of 54 seats. However, in 2019, non-BJP parties in the NDA won 50 seats, a 7.41% drop! What is equally amazing is that this drop is that the strength of the NDA went from 7 parties (including the BJP) to 12 (including the BJP). Therefore, it really means that the share of NDA in the Indian electoral game fell far more dramatically than the simple percentage stated above indicates. So, naturally, the next question becomes – what (or who) caused this drop. Here is where it gets even more interesting.
First of all, this means that the BJP ate into its own allies’ vote bank – that much is obvious. Simple math shows that the BJP’s share of the total seat count for the NDA was 85.83% in 2019. Comparatively, it was 83.92% in 2014. This means that at least some of the right-leaning vote and vote that represents everything the NDA stands for, got consolidated into vote bank of a single party – the BJP. This is a general trend I have alluded to before when I stated that the Indian polity is evolving into a more neatly divided one. However, at equivalent of just less than two percentage points, the BJP’s eating of its allied parties’ share does not explain completely the drop in its allies’ share. So then, what explains it? The answer rests with the Congress-led UPA.
In the UPA, the share of the Congress as percentage of total number of seats won by the alliance fell from 73.33% in 2014 to 52.14% in 2019. Conversely, non-Congress seat tally of the UPA rose from just 16 seats in 2014 to 39 seats in 2019, a nearly 250% increase. Whereas the Congress has also improved it’s seat count, we may reasonably argue that the increase in non-Congress UPA members’ share has come at the expense of parties outside the UPA-NDA orbit! I will remind my readers that we have previously seen that the overall count of UPA members in the Indian parliament increased by over one and a half times. This should mean that the quintessential thesis of this article – that the Indian policy is consolidating into two more neatly divided orientations – is broadly true, but with some interesting variations.
Of these, the most noteworthy variation is that, whereas there is a noticeable anti-BJP and anti-NDA sentiment on the rise, and that it is converging around the UPA, there are, however, deep fissures within the UPA. The non-Congress members of the UPA seem to be drawing off the Congress’s or, at least, the formerly Congress-phone, anti-Right vote in the very disparate directions the members rest in. We may observe that at 10 members strong, the UPA’s membership ranges from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a deeply ethno-nationalist, regional and regionalist party; to the Indian Union Muslim League and the Revolutionary Socialist Party, respectively: a religio-nationalist party which displays strong regionalist tendencies and an ulta-left party subscribing to a uniquely Indian sect of Marxism, that imagines itself between a rejection of Stalinism and an acceptance of Trotskyism.
Anyway, what this means in the long term is that the generally converging anti-Right vote, increasingly centering on the UPA, will find itself internally split. It may be that over time these fissures will deepen and the anti-Right vote will begin to get drawn farther apart and, thus, will become further weakened. What this means, also, is that, in the long run, the Right will grow stronger and consolidate its grip on the Indian polity further. However, here, the Right vote has consolidated, and will consolidate further, into a single party – i.e. the BJP. Therefore, within the Right, the BJP will become a greater, more united, more streamlined and, hence, more effective force for the political Right. In my estimation, this consolidation of the Right into a single party, i.e. the BJP, will accelerate over time. Once more and more of the Right gets behind the BJP, and the UPA, and the anti-Right vote begins to get farther apart and more internally divided, the Right, increasingly represented solely by the BJP, will find it easier to expand its influence within India.
Finally, the more extended, but, perhaps, the most significant implication of such current trends will be this: The expanded influence of the Right within India will begin to increasingly spill over into the international politics of India. This will be so because as the influence of the Right within India will grow, it will, eventually, begin to trickle into the very fabric of the Indian state. When such a time comes, it will be most pertinent to watch the most internationalist groups within the political Right and their relations with, and influence over, the BJP, especially within the NDA. Be that as it may, in my opinion, the stage for beginning of export of the various Rightist ideologies embodied by the NDA has surely and decidedly been set. It is time, then, to take serious note of this.
With the above said, it remains to be seen where the next frontier of BJP’s expansionism lies and what challenges the BJP may face in surmounting such frontiers. Then, by extension, it also remains to be seen, in light of the above, as to what can be done to stall the seemingly unfettered advance of the BJP. This and more, we will discuss in the next part of this series on the Indian General Election 2019.