Washington D.C. based India Experts Decode Recent Election Results

Event Summary

Arjun Mehrotra

On March 13th 2017, the Brookings Institution hosted “Indian Election State Results” to discuss the implications of the electoral wins by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state elections. While Goa and Manipur were briefly discussed, the focus was on the crucial Uttar Pradesh (UP) election, seen by many observers as the barometer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity. The Legislative Assembly elections, wherein the BJP won 312 out of 403 seats, was seen as a harbinger for success for the ruling party in the run up to the 2019 general (national) election.

Many comparisons were made between Prime Minister Modi’s 2014 win in the general election and the the recent 2017 win in Uttar Pradesh. However, according to Adam Ziegfeld, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, while the 2014 general election was a watershed moment in Indian politics, the later elections have not been as significant. However, this election is notable in that the BJP candidates, on the back of astute politicking by the BJP national president, Amit Shah, won with larger victory margin, compared to its opponents.

According to Irfan Nooruddin, Professor of Indian Politics at Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, little has changed in terms of the fundamentals. Professor Nooruddin outlined two trends that have play a significant role in Indian politics - those of coalition governments and the anti-incumbency trend. In the former case, the BJP’s win in Uttar Pradesh is an exception to the trend of coalition governments, and in the latter case, it is a beneficiary of the political system wherein often being an incumbent makes a candidate relatively worse off than the opposing contender for the seat. However, if both trends hold true for 2019, he predicted that Prime Minister Modi would need to create a coalition to form the government.

Given the first-past-the-post electoral system, he stated that even a 37% vote share allowed the BJP to wrestle control from a tussle between the opposition parties - the historically nationally dominant Congress Party that allied with the Samajwadi Party (SP), as well as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). However, Sadanand Dhume, Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, felt that this win was unprecedented and that it has cemented Prime Minister Modi as a favorite for the 2019 general election. This is bolstered by the fact that the BJP did not field a Chief Ministerial candidate - making the election essentially a referendum on demonetization.

In terms of demonetization, panelists wondered whether it was an act of “cultural war” against the wealthier members of society (those presumably with the largest holdings of black money). Moreover, Dhume mentioned that demonetization is at odds with the BJP’s liberalizing agenda and demonstrates the rise of a “very powerful government.” Dhume stated that he met over two hundred people during his pre-election tour of Uttar Pradesh and said that despite people stating that they initially faced hardships upon implementation, they did not criticize the policy itself and often described the move as “bold” and “decisive”.

Alyssa Ayres, Senior Fellow, India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, dived into some of the wider implications of the state election. Dr. Ayres spoke about the signalling effect this victory will have on the national level, as it opens up the possibility of the BJP gaining more seats in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) and how that can create the opportunity for the BJP to pass important legislation and fulfil its development agenda by creating jobs.

The event was moderated by Tanvi Madan, Director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution.