In 2014, the BJP showed it could conduct a campaign that was more sophisticated than anything India had seen before. Now, incumbency, money, friendly media, lessons from previous success, and boots on the ground all favour ruling alliance
India’s general elections will begin in less than a month, but last for close to six weeks, and the results will be determined on May 23rd. That is a long process, conducted on a scale that is unparalleled in the world, and there can be many twists and turns along the way. There will be many more scientific predictions than I can offer, but it is hard to resist the temptation to extrapolate from studying various facets of the Indian economy and polity over several decades, to offer an immediate answer to the question, “Who will rule India for the next five years?”
The answer seems, to me, to be an easy one: the NDA will certainly capture a majority again, even if it is somewhat reduced from its current strength of 336 Lok Sabha seats. Recent opinion polls are less certain, projecting a loss of the NDA’s majority in some cases, but all of the polls in the beginning of March project an outcome very close to a majority. What other information can one consider in making a forecast?
Despite some evidence of voter dissatisfaction with the NDA’s performance, especially evidenced in the recent state assembly elections, opinion polls suggest that people are much more likely to think that this government’s economic performance is better than that of its predecessor. Academic debates about the quality of economic data and the optimality of different economic policies may be important for improving the steering of the economy, but it seems that voters think the ruling party can still deliver better on this front. It is also important to recognise that voters can and do make very different choices at the state level versus national elections: This is likely to indicate stronger support for the NDA than the recent state elections might suggest.
Despite this observation, it is also true that the national election is also a collection of state-level contests, often multi-cornered. In particular, the 31% national vote share of the BJP, or the 38% vote share of the NDA, are not particularly useful by themselves in judging performance. As a rule of thumb, the further one moves away from the Hindi heartland, the greater is the importance of regional parties. Looking at the vote shares and seat outcomes of the 2014 election in states such as Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Odisha, it seems unlikely that there will be much change in regional power balances: In any case, the NDA does not have much to lose in such states, and may make small gains. In western India, though not quite the Hindi heartland, Gujarat and Maharashtra seem to be relatively secure bastions of the ruling alliance.
The states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where the swing in the state assembly elections compared to the 2014 national election was enough to displace the BJP, may not display the same behaviour in the general elections, as argued earlier. Aside from voters generally viewing national elections from a different lens, the recent events involving Kashmir and Pakistan are easy for the BJP to make into a salient issue. Uttar Pradesh, which was critical in giving the BJP its majority on its own, by delivering 71 of its 80 seats, may be a tougher proposition this time, simply because of the alliance between the SP and the BSP, which was absent in 2014. In this state, however, the BJP still controls the state government machinery, and that, along with the nationalist sentiment, is likely to help it retain a good number of seats.
A final factor is the technology of campaigning. In 2014, the BJP showed that it could conduct an election campaign that was more sophisticated than anything India had ever seen before. Narendra Modi, despite a blemished record in Gujarat, was marketed as a national leader in an impressively orchestrated effort. Now, incumbency, money, a friendly media, lessons from previous success, and boots on the ground all favour the ruling alliance. My view is that these considerations mean that one cannot translate opinion polls into seats won in a straightforward manner—unequal resources and technologies will tilt the outcome towards the incumbent Prime Minister.
I have provided these observations while being well aware that there are many who have much greater expertise on India’s elections. But it is hard not to offer some opinion on an exercise that is vital for India’s future. I would argue that the difference will not lie in economic policy. Any ruling party or coalition will pursue some version of what is generically referred to as “economic reform,” namely, trying to change India’s economic policies to promote sustained high growth, while also providing increasingly sophisticated and better designed safety nets, to ensure political feasibility.
The real difference will be outside pure economics, in human rights, protection of diversity, and various kinds of freedoms. In that sense, a prediction that the ruling alliance is guaranteed another five years in power is also an indictment of those in opposition, who have failed to offer a compelling alternative that includes material and non-material aspects of welfare, and includes all of India’s citizens without discrimination. India’s citizens deserve better.