In The News

Decoding India’s Historic Election Results

May 21, 2014

Nearly two months, 930,000 poll booths, 1.7 million voting machines, and over 500 million voters later, India’s marathon election concluded last Friday. Across the country, people were glued to their TVs as the results began to come in. By the evening, the outcome was clear – the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), in opposition for the last 10 years, had won a landslide victory. Capturing a staggering 282 out of 543 parliamentary seats, this is the first time in India’s independent history that a non-Congress party has won a clear majority in the lower house of parliament. On May 26, chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat and BJP leader, Narendra Modi, will be sworn in as India’s 14th prime minister.

India elections

While many exit polls predicted a win by the BJP and its allies, few anticipated the sheer magnitude of the victory. With over 336 seats between them, the BJP and its allies will form a majority voice in parliament. Flickr user/Narendra Modi http://bit.ly/1glK6vh

While many exit polls predicted a win by the BJP and its allies, few anticipated the sheer magnitude of the victory. With over 336 seats between them, the BJP and its allies will form a majority voice in parliament. Why is this significant? Because since 1989, India has had a succession of coalition governments (some quite weak), formed by alliances between different political parties at the center and in India’s states. Coalition governments don’t often lend themselves to decisive governance due to the compromises and trade-offs that are necessary to manage the competing interests of different political allies. With this election, India, in theory, will have a strong and stable government in place for at least the next five years. So what really drove the Indian electorate to deliver such a decisive mandate in 2014?

“Anti-incumbency” isn’t a term you hear often, but it is frequently used in Indian politics when voters express their discontent against the government in power by voting against them. This election demonstrated the real power of that sentiment. The Congress party, India’s oldest political party that has governed India for the better part of the last 60 years, received a crushing defeat. It won a mere 44 seats – not a sufficient number to form a strong opposition in parliament. Elected in 2004 on a platform of reform and inclusive growth, the Congress led-United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s 10-year term was marred by a series of high profile corruption scandals. The scale of corruption and the government’s failure to take swift action against the corrupt spurred a nation-wide anti-corruption movement in 2011-2012. The movement most significantly spurred the formation of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a new, largely urban middle-class party that championed the cause of a clean, efficient, and corruption-free government. The demand for change and a political alternative was palpable when the AAP won a remarkable 28 out of 70 seats in the Delhi state assembly elections last December. While the party failed to capitalize on its popularity and resigned from government a few months later, the writing was on the wall for India’s political leadership: 2014 was going to be an election unlike any other.

The Indian economy was another driving factor in this election. From an annual growth rate of nearly 10 percent in 2010-11, the Indian economy has experienced a steady slow-down over the last decade. In 2013-2014, India’s annual growth rate is estimated to be below 5 percent. Key sectors such as manufacturing and infrastructure which generate significant employment, have been the hardest hit. Low growth, coupled with high rates of domestic inflation, unemployment, a depreciating rupee, and the decline of global investor confidence have hampered the country’s image as an emerging global leader and more significantly, caused frustration in India’s villages, towns, and cities where soaring food prices and other consumables have had a tangible impact on people’s lives. Against this scenario, it’s telling that the Indian stock market and rupee hit record highs as news of the election results made waves across the globe.

The results are also a testimony to the changing face of the Indian electorate. India is a young nation, with nearly 65 percent of its population below the age of 35. In this election alone, an estimated 150 million people between the ages of 18-23 were eligible to vote for the first time. This is a post-liberalization generation that is cosmopolitan, tech savvy, entrepreneurial, and bursting with raw energy. Less interested in issues of caste, region, and religion-based politics, this generation is more invested in what India’s political parties can do to create more jobs, opportunities, and a better future. This is also a generation that is not afraid to speak its mind. Voters and political leaders have posted election “selfies” on Twitter and Facebook proudly displaying their ink-stained fingers. Political leaders Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, and Arvind Kejriwal have become some of the most popular and talked about online figures in the world. Many consider the BJP’s strong social media presence as a contributing factor to its popularity this election.

The results also speak to the demand for a strong and decisive leader in India. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while a man of great personal integrity, was heavily criticized during his 10-year term as a weak and ineffectual leader who failed to act in time to stem India’s economic slowdown, curb corruption, and remedy the policy paralysis in government. Against this background, many within the media described the 2014 election as India’s first presidential style election where it came down to a contest between political leaders rather than political parties. While the debate about whether a “Modi” wave swayed the Indian electorate rages on – I would argue that the election points to the Indian electorate’s mounting frustration with the old-school style of patronage and dynastic politics.

On the other hand, many see the BJP’s victory as indicative of the country’s turn toward right-wing nationalist politics. It is true that in the run-up to the elections, the language of political debate was bitter and divisive with India’s major political parties dredging up issues of caste, class, region, and religion. In marked contrast, the mandate the Indian electorate delivered countered this and was quite clear. The electorate did not vote for dynasty, caste, region, or religion – it voted for a strong, stable, and decisive leadership and government. The BJP and its allies have their work cut out for them in addressing the many challenges India faces. While only time will tell whether the new government will deliver on its promises, one lesson we can learn from this election is that India’s electorate – invisible as it is – is not afraid to vote with its feet.

Editor’s note: The number of seats won by the BJP has been edited from the original version, from 284 to 282. 

Mandakini Devasher Surie is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer in India. She can be reached at mandakini.surie@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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