India Decides: 2014

Judith Brown, former Beit Professor of Commonwealth History, casts a historian's eye on last year's landslide that brought Narendra Modi to power.

In April-May 2014 Indians went to the polls in the 16th general election since their country became a republic in 1950, following independence from British rule in 1947. The successful candidates became Members of Parliament, the Lok Sabha in Delhi, from which would be drawn the new government of the national state. (Since 1971, elections to the States within the federal structure have normally been held at different times from the general elections.) Government passed from the coalition headed by the Indian National Congress to the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, 'Indian People's  Party') and its allies. This peaceful change of government marked over six decades of working democracy in India, with the exception of two years in the mid-1970s when Mrs Indira Gandhi suspended democratic government under the provisions of a national "Emergency". Voters and political activists in the world's largest democracy proved again in 2014 how deeply democratic political practices had taken root in Indian society and political culture.

India's democracy has been not only long-lasting and relatively peaceful at its critical points of transition. It has also since independence produced effective governments in Delhi and in the States, capable of managing sometimes turbulent politics, governing what has grown to be the second largest population in the world (after China), and since the 1990s turning India into a major global economic power as well as a significant player in international politics. This would have amazed the British rulers of India who just a century ago were insisting that India was incapable of self-government in the foreseeable future. It was, ironically, British constitutional reforms in India, particularly from 1919, which laid the foundations of India's democratic nation state. However, it was not until after independence that there was universal adult suffrage. Indian citizens value their democracy highly, as demonstrated by the high turnouts even though voting is not compulsory. In 2014 the turnout was almost 66.4%, the highest ever in an Indian general election and just higher than the turnout in the UK general election of 2010. Indians are proud of their democracy for what it has achieved, and for what it indicates about the idea and nature of India; particularly in its contrast with the political history of the other parts of the old British Indian empire, now Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The first striking aspect of the 2014 election is the enormity of the undertaking. 814 millions were eligible to vote. (Of these nearly 3% were aged 18-19. The voting age had originally been 21 but in 1989 was reduced to 18.) Of those eligible 551 millions cast their votes (66.38%), of whom 100million were first-time voters. There were 8, 251 candidates for 543 Lok Sabha seats. The election was spread over the period 7 April-12 May, making it the longest in India's history. It involved setting up 930,000 polling stations, some of which were in extremely remote rural areas. Literacy is still far from universal — with just over 74% of the population literate according to the 2011 Census. However, because there are so many Indians, India has in fact the largest illiterate population in the world. Literacy in India also varies considerably from region to region, and men are more likely to be literate than women. (Of the population aged 7 and over, 82% of males are literate compared with 65% of females.) Consequently parties have to rely on symbols to denote their candidates as well as written words, and these are a well-established part of electioneering and the voting process. The Congress symbol is a hand, that of the BJP a lotus, and of the Communist Party of India a sickle and ears of corn. Voting is also by electronic voting machines, which should be easier for those who cannot write, and also makes electoral fraud more difficult. (For example it is no longer possible for a voter to stuff a wad of false ballot papers into the ballot box!) In recent elections all parties have attempted to modernise their methods of reaching the electorate. Where once visits by candidates, leaflets and the press were the main ways of reaching voters, now television and particularly mobile phones are significant in electioneering. Indians have jumped into the mobile phone era, often bypassing the fixed line phone altogether. In 2013 there were 886 million mobile phones in India and tariffs are among the lowest in the world. Particularly among the young voters, mobile phones have proved very important in reaching voters prior to the election.

Shri Narendra Modi taking oath as the 15th Prime Minister of India.

Shri Narendra Modi taking oath as the 15th Prime Minister of India.

The 2014 election was also highly significant because it saw the humbling of the Indian National Congress, the party which from the 1880s had been the voice of Indian nationalism, the party led by Jawaharlal Nehru (Prime Minister from 1947 to 1964), then his daughter, Indira Gandhi; by Indira's son, Rajiv, who succeeded his mother after her assassination in 1984, and then by Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv's widow, after his assassination in 1991. The party which had led India to independence and had been the dominant force in Indian political life for over 60 years since independence had its worst ever national electoral performance in 2014. It polled under 20% of the vote, and won only 44 seats out of a total of 543 seats (8.1%) in the Lok Sabha. (Its allies won 15.) By contrast the BJP won 282 seats (51.9% of seats) and its allies won 55. The BJP itself won 31% of all votes. Significantly it attracted 39% of the first-time voters compared with 19% of this group who voted for Congress. It was the first time since 1984 that a party had won the right to govern the country by itself without allies. The issues which led to the downfall of Congress and its allies were many. Among the most significant were corruption in government, the slowing down of the economy, inflation (particularly of staple food stuffs) and the absence of a charismatic leadership which looked as if it could take India into the next five years of government. Dr Manmohan Singh, who had been Prime Minister for 10 years, did not wish to take on that role again at the age of 81; and Sonia Gandhi's son, Rahul, showed few signs of being a credible leader despite his apparent readiness. The Nehru-Gandhi 'dynasty' had, in a sense, run out. Congress will almost certainly not recover until it re-invents itself as a party which can nurture a broader-based leadership cadre on which it can draw for Prime Ministerial candidates. Familial connections over several generations are a common and accepted part of Indian politics across parties. But in the case of Congress, reliance for its leadership on one family for so long has evidently become dysfunctional.

A truly national alternative to Congress as the part of government has now emerged in India. Congress had of course been challenged and replaced as the party of government in some of the States within India decades before. Specifically regional parties had come to power in southern States, left-wing parties in States such as West Bengal, and parties representing the lower castes in States such as Bihar. However, in 2014 the BJP achieved a breakthrough to a new national status, and one which had been held by no party since 1984. Its strength lay not just in the weakness of its major opponent, but in the positive response, particularly among the younger voters, to its campaign on issues such as good governance and the economy. But how "national" is it? Its major strength lies in a great swathe across northern, western and central India, but not in the south where regional parties prevail, or in the populous and politically vibrant state of West Bengal. But what of its standing among the large religious minorities present in India? The BJP increased its strength in those constituencies where Muslims are voters in significant numbers. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi identified 87 Lok Sabha seats with a high percentage of Muslim voters, and of these the BJP won 45. It also won 47 seats in the 102 constituencies where at least one in five voters is a Muslim, almost double the number of such seats it had won in the 2009 election. This is an important development as the BJP has always been an overtly Hindu nationalist party, committed ideologically to the belief that India has a Hindu identity, rather than being the composite nation made up of many religious and cultural groups, which Jawaharlal Nehru, for example, had expounded. Moreover, the new BJP Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, long-standing Chief Minister of Gujarat, was in office there in 2002 when an appalling massacre of Muslims took place there, and the state authorities stood by, allowing it to happen. Religious minorities previously tended to vote for Congress as a sort of insurance policy for their identity and safety. To what extent they will find that the BJP with its current leadership protects them, and honours their status within India, remains to be seen. Moreover, whatever may be said in Delhi about inclusiveness can be a dead letter on the ground where local party activists are dominant. It used to be a common saying that "Delhi is far away": the same is still true.

The 2014 election is now history. What matters now for India is whether the new national government can translate formal democratic success into the sort of governance and the policies which yield positive goods for the majority of the population it now represents. This is urgent not just for the religious and cultural minorities such as Muslims and Christians who have reason to be apprehensive. It is vital for the many millions who still live in poverty, and have little access to healthcare, acceptable living conditions, education and secure employment.


Balliol College