By Theo Larue
While Britain finds itself embroiled in the complexities of its exit from the European Union, it is important to remember that other areas of the world are undergoing important evolutions that will also have effects on global politics. India is set to elect representatives to the 17th Lok Sabha (India’s lower house) in April, which will determine the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy. It will either remain Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the controversial Hindu nationalist who as cast himself as India’s strongman, or a challenger from the Indian National Congress (INC), India’s historical political party that was at the forefront of independence. If it is the latter, it is anyone’s guess who will be nominated to the Premiership.
In 2014, the INC secured 44 seats to the 282 of Modi’s BJP. 272 seats are needed for a majority; however, Modi also had a large coalition, making his victory a landslide. 6 months ago, it would have seemed a foregone conclusion that Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty would attempt to defeat Modi, only to be beaten as badly as his party was in 2014.
Recently however, there have been signs that Gandhi’s party could mount a serious challenge against the sitting President. Modi has faced criticism for his inability to boost employment, which only adds to unrest among Indian farmers (a key industry both due to its size and the political importance of keeping food prices low). These factors have revealed that Modi’s invincibility could be a farce, laying the groundwork for a determinant cycle in Indian politics.
Last month The Congress Party emerged revitalized from state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the last two having been under BJP control for the past 15 years, and all of them boasting large Hindu majorities (all 89%+ Hindu), which is the BJP voter base. Clearly, tides are shifting in India.
Furthermore, two key announcements were made by the INC recently which have stoked beliefs that the election’s outcome is not a foregone conclusion: firstly, Congress’ desire to form a broad coalition with smaller, regional parties to defeat the BJP (India has 29 states, with their own languages and cultures in some cases; this makes regional parties key democratic players in the country’s politics). Secondly, that Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi’s sister (Rahul serves as the current President of the INC) has officially entered politics as a Congress official in the country’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh.
Amy Kazmin of the Financial Times writes that this is expected to galvanize Congress grassroots workers in Uttar Pradesh. If they can do a better job at campaigning than in 2014, perhaps Congress stands a genuine chance at mounting a serious opposition to the BJP, as UP sends 80 representatives to the Lok Sabha. Priyanka Gandhi is seen as the natural successor of her grandmother Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister at different times from 1966 until her assassination in 1984. Even today, she is a very popular figure in Indian politics. They share a physical resemblance and a charisma that makes her very popular with the public, more so than her brother Rahul.
In an era where the West still struggles with the notions of a female political leader, tides of change might be brought by a woman in the world’s largest democracy. There is reason to believe Priyanka’s involvement will tip the scale in the INC’s favour, especially given that the party has announced it will not name a PM candidate yet, instead waiting to see if they win the general election to elect a leader.
This leaderless bid also enters in the second part of their campaign strategy as it stands, a large coalition. Although it is expected that Rahul Gandhi, as the INC’s current President, would become the country’s leader if he won, it has not been formalized and Priyanka’s involvement has reinforced this uncertainty.
The INC is hoping that by delaying announcing an official candidate, it can better appeal to smaller, regional parties to join its fight against the BJP. Spokespeople from the Congress Party have indicated that the main goal of the 2019 general election is first and foremost to defeat the BJP. For this reason, the INC is expected to be very politically accommodating in this cycle.
In a country as big as India, regional issues often overshadow national concerns. This is the key issue, as by tying themselves to regional parties the INC would be able to present themselves as more genuine in caring for the country as a whole, when the BJP has made no secret of being at the service of the country’s Hindu majority. This is a double-edged sword, as the INC’s coalition partners might not be as cooperative as the INC hopes, and it might also lead to a dispersion of votes. This is risky because if an INC candidate and a regional candidate both receive 30% in a given constituency, but the BJP candidate gets 40%, the BJP will take that seat despite not having a majority. Let’s hope for the INC’s sake, that their strategy is refined enough that they field candidates strategically in order to maximize the seats they take on.
Opinion polls have shown that the BJP is at risk of an electoral wipeout in Uttar Pradesh, if Congress joins the existing opposition alliance there. Priyanka Gandhi was no doubt appointed to that state in order to ensure this is made possible, weakening the BJP in the key Indian state. This is where the two developments converge, showing the potential success of INC’s strategy, which has been backed by field research. The upcoming months will be of vital importance in determining the direction India takes over the next five years.