Dynastic Scion versus Former Tea Seller: India’s Political Battle for the World’s Largest Democracy

By Dr. Manish Sinha

Throughout five arduous weeks that commenced on April 7, 2014, approximately 815 million Indian voters delivered a stunning verdict on perhaps the most polarizing election in their country’s history. In one corner stood the ruling Congress Party, established in 1885 and poised on the centre-left of the political spectrum with Rahul Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate. Since 2004, it had led the nation through the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition owing to its failure to gain an outright majority at the two prior elections. Despite trying to navigate a campaign minefield with the nation crippled by Asia’s second-highest inflation, decade-low economic growth and endemic corruption, its unimpeachable place in history meant that it had ruled India for 54 of the 67 years since India gained independence. In the other corner stood the centre-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP or “The People’s Party”), the largest opposition party in parliament and which formed the National Democratic Alliance in 1998 in conjunction with thirteen smaller regional parties. Its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, is a former tea seller and indisputably one of the most divisive figures in Indian politics today. He served – not without controversy – as Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat for four consecutive terms and leveraged his national campaign strategy upon his enviable economic success at transforming the infrastructure and productivity of the state. Poised between Congress, the BJP and India’s future political destiny was the relatively new, unquestionably minor yet potentially crucial Aam Aadmi Party (AAP or “Common Man’s Party”) led by Arvind Kejriwal, former Chief Minister of Delhi. Its sudden and powerful emergence fueled hopes of a new force within Indian politics. The party’s 2011 inception, driven by an extraordinary apolitical anti-corruption movement that swept the country, led Time Magazine to name it among the "Top 10 World News Stories of 2011".

Election Results

Ultimately, however, the hype faded and the momentum fizzled. Instead, a Modi-inspired BJP delivered the heaviest ever defeat to Congress. The victory for Narendra Modi over the scion of India’s dynastic powerhouse was hailed as a victory for merit over privilege and conviction over hesitancy. The BJP managed to obtain 282 seats, which alone accounts for 51.9% of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha. By contrast, the INC secured only 44 seats, as opposed to 206 seats it represented before the election. So unexpected and dramatic was the BJP’s capacity to shift its prior social and geographical voting boundaries that it transcended the cast, religion and class divide with seeming nonchalant ease. Modi’s vision of governance – “India First” – now faces the formidable challenge of policy implementation.

A General Election Like No Other

The electoral process was staged through nine protracted phases in order to accommodate the colossal voter base and security concerns. A record high voter turnout of 66.38% included 100 million new voters. The election, coordinated by the Election Commission of India, determined all 543 parliamentary constituencies for the 16th Lok Sabha or “House of the People”, India’s lower parliamentary house. In finality, the BJP secured 166 new constituencies whilst Congress lost a record 162. The BJP’s final tally of 282 seats versus Congress’ paltry 44 meant that one single political party was able to form an undisputed majority, an occurrence not seen in India since 1984. According to the Centre for Media Studies this was the most expensive election in Indian history with $5 billion spent across all parties, tripling the cost of the prior campaign and second only to the $7 billion United States 2012 presidential election. Modi contested and won seats in the holy city of Varanasi in the northeastern state of Uttar Pradesh as well as in Vadodara, Gujarat. His primary opponent, Rahul Gandhi, contested the election from Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, and a district that has been a family stronghold since 1966. Modi’s controversial image is matched by his indisputable popularity. No other global politician bar Barack Obama has secured more “likes” on his Facebook page, a metric by which Modi far surpasses his rivals. At the culmination of the voting period, Modi had secured 14.1 million “likes” in comparison to 145 thousand for Rahul Gandhi and 5.4 million for Arvind Kejriwal; indeed, Modi outstrips even the Dalai Lama with 9.0 million “likes”. The power of social media and technology transformed the dimensionality at play. Facebook, where India is the second most populous country with 100 million users, and Twitter have been integral to this transformation with Modi’s tweets tracked by 3.9 million followers, far more than any other Indian politician. Additionally, he has been revolutionary in incorporating technology through addressing multiple election rallies simultaneously, appearing as a three-dimensional holographic image at each. By the last day of campaigning Modi had undertaken the largest mass outreach in India’s electoral history, leaving a colossal 300,000 km trail in his wake whilst navigating 437 public meetings in 25 states and 1,450 3D rallies.

Central Issues

Whilst the key issues varied regionally the election was contested primarily upon development and governance, issues crucial to India’s future aspirations and which bind together the diverse political canvass. Despite shared administrative goals, the manifestos exposed a multitude of policy differences. Under Congress, India became entangled by high inflation, low economic growth, record high current account deficit, ineffective governmental decision-making and a string of devastating scandals that embarrassed the upper echelons of power. In order to tackle rampant inflation the BJP have proposed a Price Stabilization Fund and single National Agricultural Market, promoting support for specific crops and vegetables with special courts to prevent hoarding and black marketing. Congress, by contrast, targeted inflation-control generally but proposed no explicit measures. In order to alleviate corruption, the BJP propose technology-enabled e-Governance by increasing the penetration and usage of broadband nationally, coupled with a simplification of the tax regime. With regard to Foreign Direct Investment, the BJP oppose investment in multi-brand retail due to potential loss of domestic jobs whereas Congress has no such restrictions. With reference to employment, the BJP manifesto prioritized job creation without proposing an explicit target, whereas Congress aimed to create one hundred million jobs in manufacturing alone during the next decade. The BJP promised to reverse the previous “Decade of Decay” whereas Congress aimed for 8 percent growth within three years. Finally, the passive nature of the previous incumbent government fueled deep-seated disgruntlement due to its inefficacious decision-making. The previous coalition government set a record for passing the fewest bills during a full five-year term, having passed just 165. In contrast, the previous minimum was 215. With a decisive leader and large majority in government the BJP can hope to improve upon this.

Modi vs. Gandhi: Troubles During the Electoral Campaign

Neither candidate enjoyed a trouble-free campaign. A dominant issue had been Narendra Modi’s history as Chief Minister of Gujarat.  Within six months of commencing his first term in October 2001, the state erupted into wide spread riots. According to official figures, 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus died yet some estimates approach 2,000. Whilst accused of complicity in initiating and condoning the violence, in 2012 a Special Investigations Team appointed by the Supreme Court of India acquitted Modi of any wrongdoing. Despite Gujarat being riot-free since 2002, many voters remained skeptical of the legitimacy of the Court’s verdict and Modi thus found it impossible to extricate himself from this ingrained kernel of mistrust. It is undeniably clear that this event, dating twelve years, further polarized Modi’s controversial image such that he was unable to focus attention exclusively on his successes in economically transforming Gujarat, which have been aplenty. For instance, according to the Planning Commission, during his tenure Gujarat’s economy approximately tripled in size and productivity grew by ten percent annually; faster than India nationally and approximately apace with China. The state ranks 8th highest in gross domestic product per capita, an improvement from 12th position when Modi came into office. With 5 percent of India’s population, Gujarat now accounts for 16 percent of the nation’s manufacturing and one quarter of its exports.  A reliable electricity grid with zero instances of blackouts and broadband access in every village has helped attract investors, both domestic and foreign. Foreign direct investment is one of the strategic areas for the BJP and Gujarat ranked 5th nationwide for investment from 2000-2013. Furthermore, according to the Labor Bureau, unemployment in the state has remained low throughout his tenure and is currently fourth lowest nationwide.

His Congress adversary, Rahul Gandhi, who has no formal prior political leadership experience, was also besieged by troubles. Since his party began its coalition rule ten years ago, parliament witnessed a continuous string of prominent corruption scandals. These include, but are not limited to, the 2008 cash-for-votes scandal whereby the UPA allegedly bribed MPs in order to survive a vote of confidence in July of that year, the 2010 2G scam involving the illegal undercharging by Government officials for the allocation of mobile phone licenses and the 2012 coal mining controversy where the UPA distributed 155 coal acres in an ‘arbitrary’ manner instead of to the highest bidder. In all, there have been at least eighteen notable scandals to blight Congress since 2004.

India’s Challenges for the Future

The challenges facing triumphant Modi are multifarious and deep-rooted. His government must create one million new jobs every month simply to absorb new entrants. Reversing the decline in manufacturing and agricultural employment over the previous decade will demand bold policy and effective implementation. He must make material progress in reducing rampant inflation, a lack of which could lead to a withdrawal of the foreign-based $14.4 billion investment into the Indian equity markets since Modi’s candidacy for Prime Minister was declared. He must reverse the universally acknowledged timidity of the previous administration’s foreign policy exhibited by meek surrender to diplomatic pressure from China and Pakistan; initial comments suggest a more assertive stance. He must reassure the Muslim minority – 90 percent whom rejected the BJP – that his vision for economic prosperity includes minorities who voted against him. None of the 282 lawmakers in Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party elected on May 16 are Muslim and their percentage in the incoming parliament is one of the lowest in the country’s history. Modi, who is widely regarded as pro-business, must also convince the international investment community that India will be re-oriented for growth. He will have to do this, and more, whilst encumbered by restricted authority. Although the BJP dominates the lower house, they have only 61 of the 245 members in the upper house which approves major legislation related to tax, foreign investment and constitutional changes. According to JPMorgan Chase & Co., 70 to 80 percent of regulatory and other roadblocks currently impeding big industrial projects are not within Modi's power to remove. Thus, the obstacles to recreating the shine that has seriously come off the “India Shining” model are plenty but irrespective of what his doubters may think, Modi will do his utmost to prove them wrong – once again.