India: Today’s electoral insights

12th Jun, 2014

The BJP muted all commentators with their win, yet frustratingly for political scientists, few of the factors which dictated the result are unique to this cycle. Ethnicity (encompassing religion, region and caste) disillusion with the incumbent and economics are some of the reasons why the BJP won the election, yet all have played a part in prior elections too. What has changed is the relative importance of each of these three factors in modern day India. The result speaks volumes about both the country and Indians today.

Indians left their homes through the five-week voting period to have their say like never before, with an enviable turnout of 66.4%. Arguably, the 150 million new voters for this election boosted the ballot boxes somewhat, but many of those who may have previously been spectators in the democratic process decided this time, they wanted their say too.

It is worth mentioning, and commending India on the lack of disruption nationally during the election season. In both Mumbai and Delhi I saw nothing but quiet, albeit long, queues to vote. Optimistically one may hope that considering a similar trend was seen during the first wave of Afghan elections as well, these traditionally disruptive hotspots may finally see the pen as more powerful than the sword.

Fatigue with the Congress party existed before the campaigns, but even I felt the influence of the broken-record Congress bashing of corruption, scandal and silver spoons. Whether all media content about the Congress party is true or not matters little now, what matters is that Indian voters, this time, chose not to give the incumbent Gandhi dynasty the benefit of the doubt. This time, the main competition (BJP) provided undecided voters with plenty of content ‘proving’ that Congress were unfit and unworthy to lead India into the future. Worth noting also are the wins in neither BJP nor Congress strongholds; BJP’s unrelenting byline of a shinier-future-for-India through economics meant even previously rousing parties such as AAP failed to live-up to their noisy and promising campaigns.

In a country such as India it will be a long time until historical, regional and religious motives wane in election season. Thus it would be overarching to suggest they did not impact this year’s ballots. What is significant is that Indians were willing to put these aside. Both the Muslim and Hindu rickshaw drivers near my apartment in Delhi would mock the youngsters who donned AAP caps, as they told me that Mr Modi got their thumbs up, as if this was a game for grown-ups, not ‘newcomers’ such as Kerijwal.

This is especially significant when one considers that for some voters this election is more than just Mr Modi being Hindu, and they themselves not. The murky and bloody events of 2002 surrounding Narenda Modi are painful and present memories for India’s Muslim communities (and likewise any minority group in India), so the idea that some of these groups may have put aside these huge concerns for the sake of the economy is more than significant, it’s a cultural shift.

The health of India’s economy dictated this election outcome both because the BJP allowed discussion of little else, and because so many have been left behind as a staggeringly small elite raced upwards in India. (Quite literally- Mumbai will soon be host to the World Towers, billed as the ‘world’s tallest residential building’ with starting prices of $10 million per apartment). Yes, there was a growth rate slowdown from 8 to 5 per cent which was felt at the top, but the majority of Indians won’t have experienced the former’s benefits at all.

BJP presented themselves as a party which was competent, capable and modern. Analysis of ‘media-savvy’ election campaigns seems like a cliche in a post-Obama world, but it still holds true. The devil is in the detail, and BJP’s campaign strategy was designed to represent them as a new way of the same old in India- which is exactly what so much of this country needs.

BJP’s, and thus Modi’s electoral success came from not reinventing the wheel, but changing how it was used to steer. BJP’s political success will be measured in the same way, and I sincerely hope that the drive for economic growth unites rather than divides the immeasurable conflicting threads in this vast and varied country.

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Grace Lown is an Economics graduate born and raised in London. After graduating with her MSc in International Relations, she earned her wings in a London think-tank. Currently living and working in Delhi, India.