As India goes to the ballot boxes, it seems clear that the ruling Indian National Congress (INC) and its United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition will be decimated by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The suspense centers entirely on how close the NDA will get to the 272 seats required for a parliamentary majority. The answer will determine whether the NDA will form the government and how dependent it will be on regional parties not affiliated with either alliance.
Two major opinion polls released in March suggest that the BJP will win between 220 and 240 seats and the NDA between 240 and 260 seats. By contrast, the INC and UPA are predicted to fall to around 100 and 120 seats respectively. Moreover, polls indicate that the trend is in the NDA’s favor. By contrast, in 2004, when polls wrongly predicted a BJP victory, the trends had been moving in the direction of the INC.
The BJP’s apparent gains in the last month reflect both a robust campaign by its controversial leader, Narendra Modi, and its success in forging alliances with regional parties compared to the INC, a situation that is the reverse of 2004, when the BJP was last in power. If these numbers hold up, Modi will almost certainly become prime minister, but may be dependent on one or two of the larger unaffiliated regional parties.
A swing of 20 seats in either direction, however, could make a significant difference in how dependent he is, while a BJP plurality of less than 200 seats could prevent Modi from winning support from enough parties to become prime minister at all. In this unlikely event the BJP may well choose to forego forming the government and hope for early elections. The breakdown of voting preferences by states and different demographic groups as published by the major polls suggest two sources of uncertainty in projecting the seat count.
First, slight shifts in voting patterns could play havoc with seat projections, especially in two large northern states — Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar — which account for 120 seats. In these states most seats will see a three- or four-way contest between the NDA, UPA and important regional parties. Much of the BJP’s expected gains come from these states. Conversely, the INC could be vulnerable to slight shifts toward the BJP in other states, notably Karnataka in the south, where the two are in a close battle.
Second, polls may be underestimating how persistent the BJP’s historic difficulties with poor and minority voters are. While polls show the BJP winning support across all classes, even rivalling the INC’s support among the poor, attempts to capture the voting intentions of the poor are more subject to error than for other groups and the polls may, therefore, overestimate BJP strength. Conversely, while polls continue to show BJP weakness among minority voters, polling organisations themselves note the under-representation of minority voters in their samples, especially in UP and Bihar, where Muslim voters may vote tactically for the strongest non-BJP candidate in their district. With early voting rounds suggesting high turnout, these factors could reduce the NDA’s seat total in ways that may affect post-election government formation.
Nonetheless, it is still likely that the NDA will be so far ahead that Modi will be asked to form a government. If he succeeds, what can we expect?
Several observers have noted that the BJP campaign has downplayed the party’s traditional cultural nationalist agenda in favour of a technocratic emphasis on efficiency and implementation. The principal charge levied against the UPA by the BJP manifesto concerns weak leadership and slow implementation — not, as in the past, ‘appeasement’ of minorities or playing caste politics.
The technocratic emphasis reflects both a genuine area of advantage for the BJP and a pragmatic concern not to alienate moderate voters. Modi — in contrast to the UPA, whose major legislative accomplishments have yet to be fully implemented — is perceived as a decisive leader who, as chief minister of Gujarat, attracted investment and promoted growth by rapidly implementing infrastructure projects and pro-business regulations. A Modi government would be the most business-friendly in Indian history, although it is unlikely to undertake measures that threaten its base among small business, such as opening the retail sector to foreign investment.
It is too soon to suggest, as Ashustosh Varshney does, that Modi has become ‘moderate’ or non-ideological. The BJP manifesto was released surprisingly late — on the first day of voting. Most likely this tardiness was an attempt to downplay the references to the traditional Hindu nationalist agenda which, although less prominent, remain in the manifesto. More generally, there is no contradiction between a technocratic vision of development and militant right-wing nationalism. Indeed, they go together frequently.
Modi’s own record illustrates this: during a sectarian pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 Hindu activists killed hundreds, and perhaps thousands of Muslims in retaliation for the burning to death of a train compartment filled with Hindu nationalist activists returning from attempts to build a temple at a disputed site in UP. While he has denied complicity in the events and none has ever been proven, it is widely believed that the riots were part of a strategy to polarise the electorate along religious lines ahead of an election, and that the state government was consequently slow to respond. The killings lasted three days and left a permanent stain on his technocratic reputation.
The major threat in this regard, therefore, is not what Modi will do in government, but provocative actions that might be taken by activists associated with the BJP or other organisations in the larger Hindu Nationalist movement. These actions could occur as part of an independent effort to further some aspect of the Hindu Nationlist agenda, then presenting Modi with a difficult choice as to how to respond, or as a conscious tactic to mobilise votes in the event of another election. Even in the current campaign, BJP leaders campaigning in western UP, a state that is crucial to Modi’s hopes, have been accused of playing on tensions arising from a series of communal clashes in 2013 to appeal to local Hindus.
There can be little doubt that the BJP will end up with the largest share of seats in the Lok Sabha. It is also likely, though not certain that Narendra Modi will become Prime Minister. But the longevity of his government and its record will depend on how much he is forced to rely on outside parties, and how much control he has over party activists. If the government is short-lived, then the INC — whose vote share remains largely intact — will have a stronger hand in forming alliances with many regional parties at whose expense the BJP is growing.
Arun R. Swamy is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Guam. This article first appeared in the East Asia Forum. Click here to go to the original.