In less than two weeks, Indians will be called to choose the country’s government for the next five years. The general elections in the world’s largest democracy will be held in stages — seven in all — from April 11 to May 19. The results will be announced on May 23.
With 543 elected members and 900 million eligible voters, the 2019 election for the Lok Sabha — the lower house of the Indian Parliament — will again break records as the largest election in history, a gargantuan exercise of democracy that will cost billions of dollars.
In these frenzied times, candidates are campaigning with every weapon available and are holding no punches in the propaganda war. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — who won the 2014 election in a landslide on a development-based agenda — goes into the election with a wide base of support. Nevertheless, he will need to draw on every ounce of his charisma to overcome the baggage that he has collected over the last five years in office.
Challenge in Uttar Pradesh
The main opposition party — the Indian National Congress (“Congress”), which has ruled India for most of the period since independence in 1947 — is led by Rahul Gandhi, who suffered a humiliating defeat to the BJP in 2014. The heir to India’s most influential political dynasty will contest the election from the historical seat of Amethi in the populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), and from one more seat in a southern state.
His sister, Priyanka, has formally entered politics as the rejuvenating face of India’s grand old party — she has been serving as general secretary of the Congress’ presidium since February. She has announced she will also contest elections from UP. With its 200 million people and 80 seats in the parliament, UP a heavy state in electoral terms where communal tensions among the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority have been a constant issue. Caste- and religion-based violence has sharply increased all over India under Modi’s rule, to some bolstered by a widespread sense that those responsible can act with impunity.
In 2017, the BJP won by a large majority in the state-level election in UP, where Modi enjoys extensive, hard-core support. In December, nevertheless, the BJP lost key states like Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh and this could be an indicator of the voters’ mood ahead of the coming election.
Congress is trying to revive its antique glory and keep the door open for regional parties to arrange alliances to contrast the BJP. But with the polls just a few weeks away, the party is yet to seal any in states like Bihar, West Bengal, and Delhi.
In 2013, Congress lost its long-held grip on Delhi to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — in English, the “Common Man’s Party”. The AAP was born of the divisions within the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare. Winning 28 out of the 70 seats in 2013, it formed a minority government with Congress’ support in the territory that lasted a few weeks. In the 2015 elections, the party of Arvind Kejriwal triumphed in Delhi, taking 67 of the 70 seats in the local legislative assembly.
The AAP will run separately from Congress in the capital. However, to gain political traction in UP, it might agree to ally with regional parties. The Samajwadi Party led by the socialist Akilesh Yadav and the Bahujan Samaj Party of the charismatic Dalit leader Mayawati — the third-largest national party of India in terms of vote percentage — have joined hands, hoping to defeat the BJP.
Chandrashekar Azad “Ravan” is the young leader of the Bhim Army, a Dalit organization fighting for the emancipation of India’s lower castes born as a reaction to caste-based violence in UP. The movement started in 2015 as a program of cost-free schools for indigent children with the aim of promoting emancipation through education.
Tensions with Pakistan
Ravan was arrested last year and then granted bail, as the charges were deemed politically motivated. Nevertheless, the UP government has detained him several times since (most recently on 12 March). Ravan has announced he will contest the 2019 elections from Varanasi, one of two constituencies Modi contested at the 2014 election, or whichever seat the PM chooses to contest.
Meanwhile, the BJP government is emerging from month-long tensions with India’s neighbor and long-time enemy, Pakistan. The standoff between the two nuclear powers was triggered by a deadly attack on Indian armed forced in Pulwama, Kashmir. The Himalayan state is at the center of a long-standing territorial and political dispute between the two countries.
Many political analysts see the coming elections largely as a referendum on Modi’s term as prime minister. NaMo, as he likes to be called, also served two terms as chief minister of Gujarat state. In 2002, while he was in office, three days of inter-communal violence that left 2,000 people dead racked the state, marking one of the darkest pages in India’s post-independence history.
Modi played a dominant role in the BJP’s 2014 election campaign, selling the image of a humble yet strong man, dedicated to growth and development of his motherland. In so doing, he led the BJP to an unprecedented victory. In early 2017, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center, Modi was the most popular figure in Indian politics. However, he lost some approval in 2018 to the opposition leader — the young but uncharismatic Rahul Gandhi — who is making a surprising comeback this year.
Modi, who focused the 2014 campaign on the development and economic progress, faces an electorate impatient with the many failures of his term. The promise to “make India great again” has not been fulfilled: an army of young and educated Indians have seen their chances of finding a job shrink dramatically. Despite rapid economic growth, the unemployment rate reached 6.1 percent in 2018, the highest level in 45 years.
No press conference
Modi will be remembered as the only prime minister of democratic India that never held a press conference. Nevertheless, he does “speak to” the nation periodically. When, in December 2016, he addressed the nation to announce the sudden “demonetization” of 500 and 1,000 rupees notes — equal to 86 percent of the value of notes in circulation across the country — Indians were left with no cash and the largely cash-based economy stalled for months.
The aim was to undermine the black economy and to promote cashless transactions and e-commerce. But according to the World Bank, the main effect was to drag India’s growth rate down from 7.6 to 7 percent. “Demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) introduced in 2017 are the two major headwinds that held back India’s economic growth last year”, declared Raghuram Rajan, governor of the Reserve Bank of India, claiming that the current growth rate is insufficient for the country’s needs.
Many analysts believe Modi is likely to make security and nationalism the key points of his 2019 campaign. The attack on Pulwama — responsibility for which was claimed by a Pakistan-based separatist group — and the nationalist wave that followed it helped his party divert attention from more important issues and crown him as the country’s fearless protector.
With elections approaching, the release of The Accidental Prime Minister, a biopic on Narendra Modi’s life and deeds, has raised concerns over a possible breach of the Model Code of conduct, a set of rules on political broadcasting that applies before elections. In response, a film is being made on the life of Congress president Rahul Gandhi to be released a month after the Modi one.
In the 2014 election, Modi successfully played on the chaiwala (tea-seller) jibe, making use of his modest origins to win Indians’ hearts. In mid-March of 2019, the PM began proclaiming a new campaign slogan: Main bhi chowkidar or “I am also a watchman”. This is a gimmick of dubious taste that has been blindly adopted by his partymen, many of whom have added the chowkidar prefix to their twitter handles. Modi works up his base with this kind of talk, proclaiming: “We both work day and night. You guard homes and I guard the nation”.
Photo: SAM PANTHAKY / AFP
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