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Pranav Gupta

April 15th, 2024

India Goes to the Polls 1

0 comments | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Pranav Gupta

April 15th, 2024

India Goes to the Polls 1

0 comments | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

National elections in India — the world’s most populous country — is a logistical marvel, and the most important event in its political life. Beginning later this week, India’s elections will happen over 6+ weeks, with results being declared on 4 June. Pranav Gupta looks at various issues at play, what survey data reveals and public polls predict, in what, after all, is just another ‘normal’ election. (Interested readers should also read ‘India Goes to the Polls 2‘ , published simultaneously.)   

 

With more than 900 million Indians registered to vote in the national elections starting later this week (19 April onwards), it is set to be the biggest-ever exercise in electoral democracy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are eyeing a third consecutive term in alliance with various old and new electoral partners. Meanwhile, in order to consolidate the anti-incumbent votes, several Opposition parties have come together to form the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA). Both the incumbent BJP’s appeal for continuity and the Opposition’s call for change are embedded in a combination of governance-centric issues and ideological promises.

Governance Issues

Over the years, governance issues (inflation, employment, corruption) have consistently emerged as the primary concerns of Indian voters during elections; recent survey data suggests that they persist as active concerns. Around half the voters mentioned unemployment (27 per cent) or inflation (23 per cent) as the single most important issue while casting their vote. But the Opposition has struggled to leverage this to their advantage because a significant segment of voters remain solidly aligned with the BJP’s position on these issues — which could be explained by Prime Minister Modi’s high popularity among voters, and the Opposition’s inability to provide a compelling counter-narrative. For instance, a survey among young voters in Delhi show that nearly half the respondents agreed with the Prime Minister’s vision of becoming job creators, and a plurality of respondents (35 per cent) blamed the people themselves for increasing unemployment.

In recent years, empty rhetoric over poverty alleviation has given way to political parties actively competing over tangible benefits for the lower income groups, and improvements in delivery of public services. In the upcoming elections, Prime Minister Modi is depending on mobilising support among millions of beneficiaries of an array of welfare programmes launched over the past decade by the BJP — such as the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (lit., ‘Prime Minister’s Housing Programme’), Jal Jeevan Mission (Provision of Water Taps in all Households) and Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (Prime Minister’s Programme for Providing Cooking Gas). On the other hand, the Opposition is hopeful of traction from voters for its strong pitch for state-led redistribution. In its manifesto, the Opposition Congress party’s promises include, among others, an unconditional cash transfer of IN₹100,000 (US$1,199 approx.; a significant amount in the Indian context) to every low-income household, and legal guarantee for purchasing agricultural produce at the Minimum Support Price (MSP).

Both the BJP and the Congress are framing their welfare agendas with ‘guarantees’ to the electorate. While the BJP is citing steady progress in achieving key outcomes and emphasising ‘Modi ki Guarantee’ (lit., ‘Modi’s Guarantee’) for complete delivery of promised welfare programmes, the Congress party is distributing ‘Guarantee Cards’ to low-income households for making them aware of the 25 guarantees that it has made to voters.

Ideological Issues 

In its election campaign narrative, the BJP has been repeatedly emphasising the fulfilment of pivotal ideological promises such as the abrogation of Article 370 (which conferred a special status in the Constitution to the state of Jammu and Kashmir) and the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. A significant proportion of the electorate is not only aware of these decisions but also considers these to be good steps. The considerable public support for these decisions may have deterred Opposition parties from proposing reversals and made them cautious about these issues becoming important for voters.

The fulfilment of these manifesto promises by the BJP could bring a paradigm shift in party politics in India. It would be interesting to see the new contours of ideological contestation between parties in India, and political discourse surrounding Hindutva.

The Opposition is attempting to dismantle the BJP’s cross-caste Hindu coalition by making caste-related concerns salient for voters. In the run-up to the elections, various opposition-ruled states have either conducted, or promised to conduct, a socio-economic caste Census. INDIA is not only promising to conduct a nationwide caste Census but also proposing to increase the 50 per cent cap on reservation for Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC). The focus on caste-based concerns revives an old strategy of weakening the meta-Hindutva narrative by accentuating caste identities; this  strategy was successful in limiting the BJP’s electoral expansion in the 1990s but may not be as effective today.  A recent pre-poll survey found that a plurality of voters from marginalised groups felt that the Congress was using the caste Census as a political tool.

New Issues, New Frontiers

Some new issues are also likely to play out in the upcoming elections. One such is the state of democracy in India. The Opposition has been attempting to frame this election as a fight to protect democracy; in its manifesto, the Congress has posited the choice between itself and the BJP as a choice between democratic government and authoritarian rule. However, the electoral benefits of this strategy remain uncertain given the highly polarised nature of the discourse surrounding democracy in India.

Another issue that is gaining momentum is India’s stature abroad. In its campaign, the BJP is repeatedly claiming that India’s stature abroad has increased immensely under the Modi government; its resonance is evident in data from recent surveys. In a national survey conducted in January, respondents were asked what Prime Minister Modi was likely to be remembered for: nearly one-fifth respondents (19 per cent) mentioned raising India’s global stature. This was the second most preferred option over choices including the abrogation of Article 370 and surgical military strikes in Pakistan.

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As a large segment of voters continues to repose faith in the BJP and Prime Minister Modi on most issues, various pre-poll surveys suggest that the party has a definite advantage over the Opposition alliance. Beyond the political rhetoric, the persistence of usual governance issues, the renewed salience of certain issues and efforts by parties to highlight new concerns make the upcoming elections a ‘normal’ election. The rest we will know on 4 June, when the votes are counted and the results declared.

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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ‘South Asia @ LSE’ blog, the LSE South Asia Centre or the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please click here for our Comments Policy.

This blogpost may not be reposted by anyone without prior written consent of LSE South Asia Centre; please e-mail southasia@lse.ac.uk for permission.

Banner image © Urip Dunker, ‘Street Life India’, New Delhi, 2019, Unsplash.

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About the author

Pranav Gupta

Pranav Gupta, an LSE alumnus, is Doctorand in Political Science at University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include party systems, voting behaviour and the politics of public service delivery in India.

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