Thinking Aloud: “India’s 2014 General Election: A Preview,” Part I

Apr. 8, 2014 by Darius 

Earlier this week, Indians began voting in the biggest election ever.  Voting will continue until next month, with results set to be announced May 16.  Today I saw a panel discussion about the election.  Two of the panelists, Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute and Bruce Stokes of the Pew Research Center, provided a number of interesting insights about the Indian election, its background, and how events may play out.  Today, I’ll bring you Dhume’s comments about the frontrunner of this election, Narendra Modi, and what this election might mean for the future of Indian elections.  Tomorrow, I’ll share Stokes’s polling data from India, which sheds light on this election and many issues beyond.

Right now, the most reliable Indian polls predict that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will win a historic victory and that its leader, Narendra Modi, will become the next prime minister.  Modi is a controversial figure:  he is seen as a Hindu nationalist and has been widely castigated for his role in lethal sectarian riots in 2002.

But analysts have long underestimated Modi and his position as the face of the BJP.  Dhume listed five major things analysts have gotten wrong about Modi – “myths” that have been debunked by recent events.

  • Myth 1:  The BJP would not nominate Modi as their candidate for prime minister.  Modi has too many rivals within the BJP and that, as a candidate, he has too much baggage associated with him.

Reality:  The BJP nominated Modi for PM last September.

  • Myth 2:   Modi will not be able to “break out” of his home state of Gujarat (in far northwest India).  Modi is very well-liked in Gujarat but is previously not terribly popular outside of Gujarat.  He will not be able to generate the national popularity needed to win a national race.

Reality: Modi has become the most popular Hindu politician throughout the entire country.

  • Myth 3: Modi cannot appeal to the Hindu heartland because he is from an obscure Gujarati subcaste.  Indian voters from other castes will not identify with him.

Reality: Indian voters haven’t seemed to care about Modi’s caste.

  • Myth 4: Modi will run for PM as a Hindu hardliner.

Reality: Modi’s campaign has been entirely focused on the economy and development.  (In fact, another panelist said that in an analysis of Modi’s speeches, Modi was found to have used the word “development” more than 500 times; he didn’t use the word “Hindu” once.)

  • Myth 5: Modi will be toxic to potential allies.

Reality: Modi has not only been able to forge likely alliances, his popularity has created new ones because smaller parties want to jump on the Modi bandwagon.

In addition to debunking myths, Dhume discussed a few open-ended questions about the election and what Modi might do if elected.  First of all, how wrong will the polls turn out to be?  Indian polls have been very wrong in the past, especially in 2004.  There are a number of competing explanations about the reasons for the errors:  do the polls consistently overvalue the BJP’s share of the vote, as they did in 2004 and 2009?  Or are polls getting better?  Dhume felt that Indian polling is improving but still often undervalues the winner’s margin of victory – no matter who the winner is.

Another open question is the future of the BJP and the Congress Party.  This election is almost certain to be the first in India’s history where the BJP earns the most votes, as opposed to winning the most seats or leading the government.  Will this election set a long-term pattern?  In particular, has the BJP discovered a winning coalition, one based around Hindus from all castes, that will lead them to victory in the future?  Dhume felt that this election will not pave the way for a sea-change in Indian politics.  Instead, he felt that Modi’s inclusion in the race will lead to a one-off BJP victory.  According to Dhume, Indian voters like Modi in spite of his contentious past, especially the deadly riots in 2002.  Modi’s personal background – at one point in his life he was selling tea on a railway platform and now he’s about to become PM of India – resonates very deeply with Indians.  Moreover, Modi is unmarried and has no children.  To Indians, that means he won’t engage in harmful nepotism.  Finally, he is seen as clean, even incorruptible, a rarity in Indian politics.

So where does this likely BJP victory leave the Gandhi dynasty and Congress Party?  Dhume felt that despite widespread sentiments that Rahul Gandhi is inept, he will be given at least one more chance to lead the party.  Congress has bounced back from defeats before; party loyalists have seen that sticking with the party through thick and thin pays off.  If failure persists, though, a likely successor to Rahul is his sister, Priyanka.  Dhume felt that the Congress Party leadership will remain within the Gandhi family.

How exactly do Indians feel about different issues relevant to the election?  Stay tuned tomorrow to find out.

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