Neither the Bharatiya Janata Party nor Congress will win the Lok Sabha elections outright, predicted analysts as India’s elections were set to begin April 11.
The world’s largest election will be held in seven phases, concluding May 19. Votes are scheduled to be counted by May 23. Several thousand Indian American volunteers are expected to travel to India to support their parties during the election.
Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, has created an election tracker — https://carnegieendowment.org/specialprojects/IndiaElects2019 — which aims to put out thoughtful insight about the election, and will highlight special issues until the national government is formed. Exit polls are prohibited during the multi-phase elections; results will only become available after May 23.
Support for the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is weaker than in 2014, Vaishnav told India-West, adding, however, “There is no match for Modi in the opposition. Rahul Gandhi — who helms the Congress party — does not exude leadership.”
“Many people have grievances against the government, but at the end of the day, they like Modi; they feel he is incorruptible.”
The surge of nationalism that has overtaken India post the Feb. 14 Pulwama terrorist attack, which killed 43 soldiers in Kashmir, and India’s response with airstrikes has galvanized tremendous support for the BJP, said Vaishnav. “There is no question that the BJP has used this to benefit their party. It plays to Modi’s strength of leadership and they will maximize it for the purpose of the elections,” he told India-West. “Anything the opposition says can be painted as unpatriotic.”
The Congress party must play up the jobs crisis, agrarian distress, and slow GDP growth, said Vaishnav, noting that the administration’s economic track record has not been as robust. The Congress party’s manifesto, released last week, “had some interesting ideas, but it was too little, too late,” he said.
Richard Rossow, who holds the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told India-West: “The winds are blowing in Modi’s favor.”
However, he predicted: “Neither party is going to get the win outright. It will depend on coalitions and who’s sidling up to who.”
Modi has a coalition to fall back upon, said Rossow, noting the significant alliance between the BJP and Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK.
Rossow said he did not view the Balakot airstrikes as a political ploy to get a few votes, and downplayed the impact of a Hindu nationalist agenda in the vote tallies. “People are looking at government services: bank accounts for the poor, modern toilets and the electrification of villages,” he told India-West, adding that social issues will take a backstage to rural and economic development.
The entrance of Priyanka Gandhi into the Congress party’s leadership has been a good move, said Rossow. “She has a good ability to connect with the masses,” he said, doubting, however, that she would wrest the reins of leadership of the party away from her brother.
Thomas Blom Hansen, the Reliance-Dhirubhai Ambani Professor in South Asian Studies at Stanford University, also believes that the BJP will not win the same kind of majority as it did before. “Some form of coalition government will be formed. But it is hard to see anyone but Modi being the lead.”
The BJP-led government has not delivered on so many basic promises, including jobs creation and regional economic development, said Hansen, adding, however, that it has fueled its base by “whipping up communal tension, as it does whenever it’s in trouble, but you cannot sustain a majority on that basis.”
Modi’s headline-grabbing schemes, demonetization and a new Goods and Services Tax have created a lot of anger among India’s population, said Hansen, adding that small businesses were hit rather hard by the new GST.
“No economist believes that demonetization has made a difference in routing out black money,” said Hansen, adding that it was a good PR stunt which mobilized patriotism. “Eight-five percent of India’s economy remains in the informal sector with solely cash transactions. Demonetization was smart politics, but not good economics.”
The Congress party has few ideas they can claim as their own, Hansen told India-West, noting that the BJP government has taken over many Congress-inspired initiatives and put their own touches on it.
Hansen predicted that the upcoming election will propel India into deeper regionalization of politics, a trend that has been emerging since the mid-1980s.
Businesswoman Hina Trivedi will join an estimated 300 Indian American volunteers from the Chicago area who are traveling to India this month to shore up support for the BJP.
Building on work established by the Indian American diaspora during the 2014 election cycle, Trivedi, executive director of the Overseas Friends of the BJP’s women’s wing, has already mobilized phone banks to get Indian citizens residing in the U.S. to return to India to cast their vote, and to call their relatives in India to vote for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Baroda-born woman, who emigrated to the U.S. as a baby, speaks seven Indian languages and will volunteer from several states in India, as she did during the 2014 general election. She predicted that several thousand Indian American supporters of the BJP will volunteer in the country during the election, which will be held in seven phases and concludes May 19.
“There is more enthusiasm today for Modi than in 2014,” Trivedi told India-West, adding that the prime minister has “transformed” the country with his ambitious agenda. “I have travelled through India, in small villages and big cities. People are saying ‘no one has ever done this for us before,’ in a quick and efficient manner.”
George Abraham, vice chairman of the India Overseas Congress party, will also be travelling to India this month to shore up support for the opposition, helmed by Rahul Gandhi. Abraham predicted there will be a larger group of IOC volunteers from America during the upcoming elections. He will start his efforts from Thiruvananthapuram to support Congress Lok Sabha incumbent Shashi Tharoor.
“There is much more energy and enthusiasm. Modi has failed India dramatically,” Abraham stated, noting that the prime minister had promised to create 20 million jobs, but has generated less than 200,000.
Modi came in on a platform of economic development, but has failed in this mission, Abraham told India-West. He noted that demonetization and the GST have created “so much havoc.” “It is a loot of the public’s money,” he said, attributing the loss of three million jobs to the failed scheme which was implemented over a weekend.
Abraham also decried the government’s lack of support for farmers, “the backbone of India.” He noted that farmer suicides are now in such high numbers that the government has stopped releasing statistics.
If Modi retains his seat, Abraham predicts a strengthening of the Hindutva agenda. “It will not be a secular India. It will be a nationalist India.”
“People now are scared to talk against the government,” said Abraham, noting that critics, such as journalist Gauri Lankesh, and others have been killed.
Abraham, a Christian from Kerala, said there has been a rise of bigotry against Christians. “Churches are constantly under the threat of harassment by the RSS,” he said, noting that Dalits and Muslims face the same daily threats.
Physician Bharat Barai, who organized the event last year at Madison Square Gardens in New York for Modi, told India-West he supports the prime minister for his espousal of “a clean, efficient government that is dedicated to the upliftment of India’s people.”
“Modi is willing to take the challenges to do things that are bold in nature,” said Barai, who volunteered in India during the last election but could not this year because of health reasons.
Barai characterized the Congress party as corrupt. He pointed to Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath’s son Nakul, a businessman who is running for office from Chhindwara, who has declared assets of Rs. 600 crore. “Where has that money come from?” Barai asked? He pointed to Rahul Gandhi’s declared assets of Rs. 60 crore, along with Mayawati’s declared assets of over Rs. 100 crore, as further proof of corruption.