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Indian elections: democracy reaffirmed?

The election results which have just come in have been stunning. BJP won thumping majorities in Madhya Pradesh (165/230), Rajasthan (162/199) and a comfortable majority in Chhattisgarh (49/90).

Over the last two weeks, India conducted “semi-finals” for the general (federal) elections scheduled for mid-April 2014. These state-level elections involved 110 million voters. Four of the five states which voted - Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi - are located in central, northern, and western parts of India which account for a large number of seats in the Federal

These elections became a referendum on three critical issues: the leadership of Rahul Gandhi in the Congress party, Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) decision to declare Narendra Modi (NaMo) its Prime Ministerial candidate, and the future of anti-corruption parties in India. Both NaMo and Rahul actively campaigned in these states.  NaMo’s rallies drew huge crowds while Rahul’s crowd-pulling abilities were variable.

The rise of NaMo in national politics has jolted Indian politics. NaMo is a divisive figure. While some view him as a non-corruptible, development oriented leader who has transformed the state of Gujarat as its Chief Minister,  others consider him the communal leader responsible for the 2002 communal riots in his state. Rahul Gandhi is the scion of the Gandhi-Nehru family. For his supporters, he is a straight-talking visionary; for others, he is an inexperienced leader without a resume or ideas.

The election results which have just come in, have been stunning. BJP won thumping majorities in Madhya Pradesh (165/230), Rajasthan (162/199) and a comfortable majority in Chhattisgarh (49/90). Of the four states, the BJP was in power in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, while Congress was in power in Rajasthan and Delhi. Because the Indian electorate tends to vote out the incumbent, both political parties were vulnerable to anti-incumbency. BJP’s victories in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are therefore all the more remarkable because both defied anti-incumbency.

Elections in Delhi saw the rise of an anti-corruption party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) led by Arvind Kejriwal, a former central government bureaucrat. In spite of falling out with his anti-corruption mentor, Anna Hazare, Kejriwal has retained the halo of plain-speaking anti-corruption crusader. In the 70 member Delhi Legislative Assembly, the BJP and its allies have secured 32 seats while the AAP secured 28 seats.  The Congress party was routed with only 8 seats; even the Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, lost to Arvind Kejriwal in her pocket borough constituency.

Interpreting results

Needless to say, these elections have important implications for Indian politics. What conclusions can we draw?

1. Indians remain committed to electoral politics. In spite of corruption scandals, economic slowdown, and rising prices, citizens retain faith in electoral democracy.  This is reflected in high voter turnout: 75% in Rajasthan, 70% in Madhya Pradesh as well as Chhattisgarh, and 65% in Delhi. Polling hours had to be extended in many states because a large number of citizens waited patiently outside the polling stations to cast their ballots. This is a healthy sign for any democracy.

2. Elections in India are organized by an autonomous Election Commission. The Commission deserves credit for conducting peaceful elections, and without any allegations of vote fraud or rigging. Electronic voting machines were extensively used without any serious complaints. Free and fair elections strengthen democracy and empower citizens.

3.The Congress party has received a very strong drubbing. It has been rejected everywhere; the rejection is perhaps the most stark in Delhi where it has been pushed to a distant third behind the BJP and AAP. Already, there are indications that Prime Minster Dr. Manmohan Singh will be blamed for Congress’ poor performance and replaced.

4. The NaMo factor seems to have worked in BJP’s favour, although it is difficult to estimate its precise contribution. Had the BJP not performed well, the rise of NaMo as a national leader would have received a serious setback. With its strong performance in these elections, NaMo has emerged stronger. Born in a humble family (son of a tea vendor), he has had a remarkable career.
During the election campaign, some politicians suggested that a tea vendor Could never become the Prime Minster of India.  It will be difficult to make such statements in the future. Hopefully, debates in the coming months will focus on the leader’s performance, ethics, and vision, and not on his family background.

5. The rise of AAP as a major political force in the national capital is remarkable. AAP has demonstrated its mass appeal; it won in constituencies populated by the affluent as well as the under-privileged. It effectively tapped into public anger against corruption. While AAP is a beneficiary of the protest vote, it remains to be seen whether it will retain its support base in the
April 2014 elections, as well as extend its influence beyond Delhi.

About the author

Aseem Prakash is the Walker Family Professor for the College of Arts and Sciences at University of Washington, SeattleHe studies environmental issues, international political economy, and NGO politics, and is the author of Greening the Firm: The Politics of Corporate Environmentalism (Cambridge, 2000), and the co-editor of Advocacy Organizations and Collective Action (Cambridge, 2010), and Voluntary Regulations of NGOs and Nonprofits: An Accountability Club Framework (Cambridge, 2010).

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