Inside Story

India’s experiment in majority government is almost over

The South Asian giant will be back in more familiar territory after the May election

Tony O’Grady 27 March 2019 2081 words

Merchant of dreams? Congress party president Rahul Gandhi at a rally in Mumbai on 1 March, during which he promised 500 square foot houses to slum-dwellers in Mumbai. Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times

For the twenty-five years before Narendra Modi and his BJP swept to power in 2014, the road to electoral success in India involved forging alliances big enough to defeat the main rival party. But the BJP broke the mould, winning a majority of the 543 lower house seats in its own right. Its allies’ tally — another fifty-six seats — was the icing on the cake. “Is Coalition Era Over?” read the headline in India Today.

The 2019 elections will almost certainly answer that question in the negative. Neither the BJP nor its main opponent, the Indian National Congress, is taking any chances, with both parties frantically searching for allies in May’s election. Their success in this search will determine who forms the next government.

In the BJP’s case, one obvious reason for recruiting political allies is that a degree of disappointment among voters was always inevitable given the extravagant promises Modi made in 2014. Unemployment has risen, the BJP’s schemes for lifting farmers out of their dire circumstances have failed, corruption is still rampant, and Hindu–Muslim tensions have not abated. As a result, the party has recently suffered major electoral setbacks, with Congress taking control of governments in the BJP heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The BJP won 136 of the 222 seats in these states in 2014, a feat most unlikely to be repeated in May.

One crucial factor driving this reversal is the growing disaffection of farmers, who constitute about 70 per cent of India’s population. Drought, falling prices for produce, and escalating prices for fuel, fertiliser and other necessities have left them impoverished and unable to repay loans, and the decision to withdraw large-denomination banknotes (an anti-corruption measure) and introduce a GST only made things worse. Last March in Maharashtra tens of thousands of farmers walked 150 kilometres to Mumbai to demand government-guaranteed price rises for their produce and respite from loan repayments. In October a demonstration in Delhi was met with water cannons and tear gas; two months later another 100,000 farmers took to the streets. Such demonstrations have become frequent and widespread.

Increasingly, the emphasis has been on the highly emotive issue of farmer suicides. In January the Economist estimated that numbers had reached 12,000 per annum. The deaths were given particularly grisly emphasis in 2017 when farmers from Tamil Nadu protested in Delhi carrying skulls purported to be those of suicided farmers. On that occasion the BBC quoted this anguished poem that epitomised the desperation of many of the protesters:

It’s dead/ It’s dead/ Farming is dead
It’s agony/ It’s agony/ The death of farming
It’s burning/ It’s burning
The farmers’ heart and belly
Stop this/ Stop this
These farmers’ deaths.

Although many of the Modi reforms have brought improved roads, better sanitation, and gas, electricity and water services for urban dwellers, the farming community has much less to be grateful for. New loans to farmers went overwhelmingly to those with farms of more than four hectares, while the 50 per cent or more whose farms are less than one hectare or who don’t have a bank account failed to receive this assistance. Corruption was also rampant: in Rajasthan, for example, 17,000 of the listed beneficiaries of the scheme had never, in fact, received a loan.

A promise to guarantee farmers “production cost plus 50 per cent” for their goods was never honoured and many prices have plummeted to disastrous levels. The price of garlic fell from between 30 and 50 rupees per kilogram in January last year to between 5 and 20 rupees by November.

On top of that, Modi’s chaotically managed “demonetisation” policy of 2016 and his introduction of a GST in 2017 are seen as further burdens for farmers and small businesses. Inevitably, the withdrawal of all 500 rupee and 1000 rupee notes from circulation, and the accompanying limits on cash withdrawals caused a rush on the banks and an extended cash shortage for a huge number of people. Many businesses closed down and an estimated 1.5 million jobs were lost.

The introduction of the GST in the following year was less dramatic, but it too placed new stresses on small businesses and on the poor. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was quick to present it as “a way of removing money from the pockets of the poor,” and it became another opportunity to attack the Modi government.

In these circumstances, even many of the farmers who did receive loans are unable to make their repayments, and some are having their land confiscated. It is little wonder that farmer discontent is at such a level.

One fundamental characteristic of India is its diversity. As John Strachey wrote back in 1888, “India is a name that we give to a great region including a multitude of different countries.” Much has changed since then, but regional differences remain a distinguishing feature of today’s India. Of its twenty-nine states, ten have populations of over fifty million; of those ten, eight have their own official language. Overall, the nation has thirty-three official languages.

The population is further divided into thousands of castes and sub-castes, which often form the basis of local voting blocs. All of this means that local identity and interests often prevail over national ones, making the formation of a genuinely national party impossible. Seven national parties, twenty-four regional parties and 2293 other parties litter the Indian electoral scene, and even the “national” parties are far from national.

The successes of the smaller parties have generally been restricted to one state. For their part, the BJP and Congress have had basically no electoral success in the main southern and southwestern states — Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and West Bengal — that contain 164 of the nation’s 543 seats. At the last election Congress won just fourteen of those seats and the BJP only seven. To win this year’s election, one of them will need substantial support from local parties in those states.

A vital characteristic of the Indian electoral system is that it uses the first-past-the-post voting system, which means that the candidate with the largest number of votes wins regardless of whether he or she achieves an absolute majority. In the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, for example, the BJP won seventy-one of the eighty seats in 2014 after obtaining only 43 per cent of the vote. It won sixty-one of these seats with a vote of less than 50 per cent, and nineteen of them with less than 40 per cent.

If the two left-of-centre parties, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, had agreed to nominate and support only one candidate in each of Uttar Pradesh’s electorates, their combined vote would have defeated thirty-four of the successful BJP candidates. The two parties learnt their lesson, and have formed an alliance for this election that poses a very serious threat to the BJP. Of course, not all of their voters will follow the alliance’s advice, but it is highly probable that many will. If such an alliance had existed in 2014 and had also incorporated Congress, it may well have snatched victory from a further ten BJP candidates. The animosity of the two parties to Congress has, however, ruled out such a triple alliance this year.

On 19 March the two left-wing parties announced a similar alliance in Maharashtra, the second-largest state, and declared that they hoped to win at least fifteen of the forty-eight seats. They have also formed an alliance in Madhya Pradesh and Uttarkand and hope to do so in Rajasthan. This could prove disastrous for the BJP but could also limit possible Congress gains.

The election campaign is now in full swing and all parties are setting out to woo 800-plus million voters, 130 million of whom will be new voters. As usual, the major parties will be making grand and unachievable promises — promises to stabilise prices, create millions of new jobs, eradicate corruption and raise millions from poverty. Modi’s many undertakings in 2014 prompted Nitin Gadkari, one of his most prominent ministers, to make a veiled reference to a “merchant of dreams,” but the title could well be applied to other party leaders.

Modi goes into the election with considerable achievements in such areas as economic growth, reduced inflation, and investments in infrastructure and sanitation to balance against his government’s shortcomings in relation to farmers’ livelihoods, irrigation, employment, corruption, minority groups and trade unions. He is presenting himself as the chowkidar or watchman, of the nation, the one person who can maintain the stability and economic development of the country, and his handling of the recent border clashes with Pakistan has enhanced his status as national leader. The person has assumed more prominence than his policies.

His main opponent, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, has followed a different path. He is capitalising as much as he can on his family connections, as the current flag-bearer of the Nehru–Gandhi dynasty, and is being very publicly supported by his mother, Sonia Gandhi, and his sister, Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra. But he has very little political or governmental experience and can easily be presented as a political novice in comparison with Modi. The main thrust of his campaign so far has been to highlight Modi’s failures and to try to enlist the support of the various anti-Modi/BJP forces in the country, the latter a task for which he has shown very little aptitude.

He has promised a minimum income guarantee for the poorest 10 per cent of India’s families, reserved places for women amounting to 33 per cent of national and state parliaments, and pledged an increase in education expenditure to 6 per cent of GDP by 2023–24 and health expenditure to 3 per cent of GDP. These unrealistic pledges are familiar from previous Indian elections and are unlikely to be taken at face value.

Gandhi’s campaign has also turned up one particularly disturbing factor, especially for a party traditionally espousing secular values. Over the past two decades the major Hindi states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have become the heartland of the BJP, which espouses Hindutva, a militant form of Hindu nationalism. It is a political ideology that demands a Hindu hegemony, imposes Hindu values and way of life on all its subjects, and often results in violence against minority groups such as Muslims. In order to try to regain support for Congress in the two states, Rahul has pandered to these attitudes, regularly preceding political rallies there with much-publicised visits to Hindu temples. He has been silent on the issues of Hindutva violence against Muslims and dalits and has pursued a policy of endorsing dominant caste candidates in the area.

Gandhi has also installed Kamal Nath as the new chief minister of Madhya Pradesh despite his high-profile involvement in the 1984 massacre of the Sikhs in Delhi and his pre-election emphasis on such policies as setting up a thousand cow shelters (gaushalas) throughout the state.

Yet these policies are unlikely to win votes from Modi. In fact, the swing that Congress gained in this area in last year’s state elections came not from the traditional high-caste BJP base but from the lower castes, traditionally the Congress base, which he should be nurturing rather than surrendering to other left-of-centre parties. Congress is fast becoming a party with no ideological base or political program of its own and no driving aim other than the desire for political power.

Given the disenchantment of farmers with the Modi government, the enormous diversity of the national electorate, the nature of the voting system, the emerging alliance of those erstwhile enemies, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, and the failure of Congress to develop effective strategies or policies to substantially increase its support base, neither Modi’s BJP nor Gandhi’s Congress is likely to win this election and the new government will be yet another unstable and probably short-lived coalition.

Powerful regional leaders — such as Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav and Sharad Pawar — may be prepared to ally themselves with Gandhi to form a coalition government, but they won’t necessarily accept him as prime minister. Or the BJP and its allied parties might succeed in reaching the magic figure of 274 seats if Modi can find the skills of cooperation and compromise that have been glaringly absent from his own political career, in which case his party may need to opt for a new leader such as Nitin Gadkari, who has a long history of workable relations with his political opponents. Either way, coalition government will return to its previous status as India’s political norm. •