At the conclusion of the Indian elections in which the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) romped home with margins that proved better than market expectations had been, one takes the time to examine two major components emanating from the elections:
1) What were the vectors that played out in the election?
2) What is the likely path of the new government in the context of election results?
Explaining the results
To say that many pundits in the English media were caught by surprise last Sunday when exit polls were published (Indian rules prohibit the publication of such polls until 6 pm on the last day of elections) would be a gross understatement. In itself this is not a major surprise since the English media, catering to a small section of urban professionals, have increasingly diverged from the vernacular media on key political issues.
Putting that less politely one can say that the English media got trapped in a fake liberal-secular narrative that ended up supporting corrupt old elites – at the expense of the energetic and largely corruption-free Bharatiya Janata Party, which it accused of fanning anti-minority sentiments. A number of Indian urban professionals thus eschewed the liberal English media, turning their attention instead toward channels offering coverage that was more positive. That in turn put the traditional English media into a negative feedback loop, reinforcing their increasingly alienating behavior with the readership.
Global publications like The Washington Post, The New York Times, Time, The Economist and others did themselves no favors demonizing Narendra Modi and the BJP over the last few months. Whether written by liberal expatriate Indians or by others from Pakistan, China and the Western world, these articles only served to enrage urban Indian professionals at what they considered neocolonial behavior masquerading as exaggerated fears about Hindus.
It is good for India that the elections helped to further undermine the already questionable credibility of these news organizations.
A word on the elections themselves, which stretched over a mammoth six-week period to give approximately 900 million eligible voters the chance to vote: To put that in context, it’s as if the entire populations of the United States, the European Union, Russia and Japan all turned up to vote. Even then the grouping would have been less diverse than the electorate that turned up to vote in India. In the event, 67% of eligible voters cast their votes – an astounding number of 600 million people. That is a specific point that counters the so-called “Shanghai narrative” wherein benign dictatorship is seen as preferable to the cacophony of democracy. Whatever the economic results of the two systems, the fact that 600 million turned up to vote simply means that the genie is out of the lamp. There is simply no turning back for Indian democracy.
Also, unlike in the case of the above-mentioned countries, Indian political parties are wide-ranging and colorful. Forget the two or three choices that most voters in developed countries get to see at their booths. In many Indian constituencies voters could choose among 25 political parties! Even discounting the typical publicity-seeking or single-issue-focused politicians, voters in many constituencies could choose among three to five viable candidates. This is key to understanding the math behind the election results. In a British style first-past-the-post system, candidates with the single largest number of votes in a constituency win the election even if the combined vote total for other political parties far exceeds the winner’s number.
Take an example of a four-cornered contest in a constituency with 100 voters (in real life more likely to be multiplied by a few hundred thousand, but it suffices for the example) wherein 65 people turned up to vote. If the four candidates secured 21-19-15-10 then the person who won 21 votes is declared the winner, even though a stonking 35 people didn’t vote at all and 44 people voted for others.
While this may appear unfair, the facts are more complex. Elections stretched over a six-week period to ensure that there were enough polling booths available in all constituencies so that people could cast their votes within an hour’s wait. In most cities, average wait times were less than 30 minutes. There was thus no real excuse for voters’ failure to discharge their electoral duty.
Secondly, the choice among four political parties is a real one, affecting different issues. For example, while the two main contenders could be challenging each other based on broad economic development issues, one of the other two could be a single-issue-focused campaign (say on reviving a local factory or increasing subsidies for farmers) while the other one could be a splinter faction from one of the main parties – such factionalism has been typical for both the main political parties in this election.
In any event, since the rules are the same for all political parties, the question is systemic rather than idiosyncratic. In other words, it pertains to all comparisons of parliamentary systems with presidential-style systems (the latter also sometimes delivering candidates with a minority of votes but a plurality of other metrics, a notable example being US President Donald Trump).
Looking at past election results, one discerns a strong anti-incumbency trend in Indian elections, wherein the electorate votes out the government of the day and gives a chance to the opposition. With the very mixed economic performance of this government, how did the opposition fail to capitalize on the opportunity to unseat the government?
I am sure that many volumes will be written on this subject, so I will limit myself to three specific observations based on my visits and interactions recently:
1) The main opposition party, Congress, failed to capture the nation’s mood, still relying on hoary nostalgia that did not resonate with a vast section of the population below age 35. Congress attempted to personalize its attacks on the prime minister, but that narrative simply failed. The party then tried to project a positive vision about a daily minimum wage for the bottom 20% of the population, but that proposal went nowhere with the voting public – a fact that reflected the utter lack of credibility of the leadership. In coming days, much of the ire from India’s liberal brigade will be directed at the hapless Congress leadership, and for good reason.
2) Even worse than the Congress’s messaging strategy was its management of regional allies. Given the above construct of outcomes in multi-cornered contests, Congress should have gone to great lengths to avoid fracturing the opposition vote share. Yet in key states including Uttar Pradesh (which sends the single largest number of parliamentarians) the opposition vote was fractured, clearly benefiting the BJP and its allies. A secondary issue arose when the opposition tried to project alternatives to Modi as prime minister, instead coming a cropper with multiple candidates raising their hands for the country’s top job. The lack of consensus aside, voters were left bemused by the megalomaniacal ambitions of the heads of many regional political parties.
3) The third and perhaps most salient factor here seemed to have been Prime Minister Modi’s individual charisma and popularity, which overcame people’s doubts about the BJP including its scary fringe elements. Cleverly, the BJP leadership ran a presidential-style campaign, in effect telling voters across 543 constituencies that their votes for the BJP would enable the prime minister. Local issues were pushed to the back – a risky strategy that appears nevertheless to have paid off. This goes back to the first two points about the opposition strategy – clearly, the way to fight Modi would have been to make local issues prominent and specific in each constituency, which Mr Modi would have found difficult to address individually. Instead, by focusing their attention on denting Modi’s popularity, the opposition fell flat and walked straight into the trap set by the BJP. A belated attempt to project Rahul Gandhi on similar presidential lines elicited much mirth among media observers, even within the narrow constraints of the anti-BJP English media.
Between them the megalomaniacs across India’s opposition parties and the useful idiots across the English media, both globally and locally, effectively propelled Modi’s narrative, leading to the opposition’s simply losing its shirt in this election.
Chan Akya is a veteran analyst for Asia Times. Tomorrow: Part 2, the conclusion of this article