Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landslide victory in India’s general election on 23 May marks the first time in nearly 50 years that an Indian government has returned to power with an absolute majority and a larger mandate for a second consecutive term.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) increased its strength by 21 to 303 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament), winning 38.55% of the votes cast by India’s electorate of 600 million. The number of seats won by its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) also increased to 350, but short of a two-thirds majority, and its vote share grew to 45%. The BJP’s electoral sweep expanded from the north and west, to the east and northeast of the country.
The six M’s behind the BJP’s electoral sweep
Modi, the strong and popular leader of the BJP, was the focus of the electoral campaign, with BJP cadres around the country seeking votes on his behalf. This transcended the arithmetic of caste votes that was seemingly pitted against him by the opposition parties in the largest state of Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP won 62 of 80 seats.
The machinery of the BJP, led by president and Modi confidant, Amit Shah, worked efficiently and effectively. Based on dedicated cadres, there was considerable coordination among the district, state and national levels, with as many as 99 sitting MPs of the BJP de-selected to ensure the ‘winnability’ of its candidates. However, this also led to the nomination, candidature and election of controversial BJP MP Pragya Singh Thakur, on bail while facing trial on a terror charge.
Messaging on nationalism and national security was given primacy for the first time. This focused on the making of a strong India able to respond effectively to terror attacks, following India’s Balakot air strike against a terror camp in mainland Pakistan on 26 February (in response to a Pakistan-based terror attack on paramilitary forces). India’s pride in making an impact on the world stage was also heavily emphasised. In effect, Modi and the BJP had no hesitation in focusing on the armed forces in their electoral rhetoric, brushing aside opposition criticism that this could jeopardise their apolitical nature, a fundamental attribute of India’s democracy.
In terms of money, the BJP received more than 73% of donations declared by India’s largest political parties in 2017–18 and over 94.5% of the electoral bonds, accounting for a total of at least £19 million. Overall, a total of over £6.7 billion was estimated to have been spent by all political parties on the 2019 election, over three times the cost of the last US presidential election.
Media outreach was cleverly managed by the BJP, with huge coverage of its rallies and select media interviews with Modi, even as he ended his first term refusing to take any questions in a press conference. This was India’s first so-called ‘WhatsApp general election’, with fears that the popular messaging service would enable the widespread dissemination of ‘fake news’ to India’s 300-million-strong community of WhatsApp users.
Mistakes on the part of the principal opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC), meant that it won only 52 of 545 seats, just eight more than previously.
The party’s approach to the election was complacent – it expected voters to repeat their tendency to reject the sitting government, and refused to agree to pre-electoral tie-ins with regional parties in three key northern states. The party’s electoral impact was also hampered by severe differences among its political leaders.
What will Modi’s ‘New India’ look like?
Essentially, the election results represent a powerful vote in favour of continuity and of Modi’s initiative to create a ‘new India’, focusing on development opportunities to make it an ‘advanced state’, as well as the economic and social transformation, that he has already initiated. This will take place alongside a strong national-security and foreign-policy agenda.
The BJP’s Lok Sabha victory will likely impact the stability of opposition-led state governments, with assembly polls in the next two years expected to increase the sway of the NDA over state governments.
With the BJP-led NDA government now expected to gain a majority in the Rajya Sabha (upper house of parliament) by November 2020, legislation on key issues such as amendments to the Land Acquisition Act, which had eluded the government in its first term, will become easier.
Yet there remain concerns over Hindu extremism and a social media campaign against liberal perspectives. In his first speech on 23 May, Modi noted the victory of India while criticising the ‘fake secularism’ of appeasing minority communities for electoral purposes. He went on to call for the breaking of the ‘deception’ of the ‘imaginary fear’ of India minority population. Yet religious intolerance has risen, with the lynching of Muslims suspected of killing cows, which are considered sacred by Hindus. Moreover, of the 27 Muslim MPs elected, only one is from the BJP, despite Muslims comprising 14% of the population. However, such criticism often leads to abuse by social media trolls, some of whom continue to be ‘followed’ by Modi on platforms such as Twitter.
As the Modi government prepares to celebrate India’s 75th year of independence and to hosting and taking over the presidency of the G20 summit in 2022, it is expected to play a more forceful role in projecting India as a powerful regional and new global power, while becoming the world’s most populous country by the time the next general elections are held in 2024.
Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, Senior Fellow for South Asia, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). This commentary first appeared in IISS Analysis.