I don’t have that much to add to the conventional wisdom about India’s election results. It was an even bigger landslide for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) than expected, with the NDA’s leading party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), winning enough votes to rule without a coalition. This is the first time one party has won enough seats to form a government by itself since Congress after the 1984 elections. It is very likely this will turn out to be a pivotal election in Indian history, and only time will tell whether Congress will recover enough to compete for a majority. The BJP clearly has broken through the ceiling that appeared to cap its share of the vote in the low 20s. I have created a map of the election, which, unlike some of the maps I have seen so far, doesn’t paint all of the NDA parties one color, the UPA parties another, and every other party a third. Every party that won more than one seat gets its own color, which allows one to see that India’s politics remain extremely messy and fractured despite the NDA’s landslide.
First, I notice that Wikipedia has a map up that uses the same base map as me, and even some of the same colors (to be fair, orange for the BJP and blue for Congress is pretty standard). I’m posting this anyway because I have a little more detail with the small parties and because I already made the map. Here are a few of my takeaways:
1. The Regional Parties Fizzled– There was some chatter that a third front would emerge in the space between the unpopular and exhausted Congress and the toxic and divisive BJP, but it totally failed to materialize. Some regional parties did quite well, and overall the non-NDA and non-UPA parties didn’t lose much ground, but the formerly inexorable rise of the regional parties has been halted. For the first time since 1999, the BJP and Congress combined for more than half of the popular vote. By my count, there were six major regional parties that suffered near total wipe outs this year. In two cases, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) losing to the All India Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s drubbing at the hands of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, the change is of little import on the national stage. None of the parties involved were part of either coalition heading into the election. Three parties fell victim to the BJP’s surge in north India. The Janata Dal (United), which won 20 of Bihar’s 40 seats in 2009, won zero seats this year. Similarly, two of Uttar Pradesh’s most important parties, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) went from 23 and 21 seats respectively in 2009, to 5 and zero in 2014. Finally, the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, which has been the dominant party in Jammu and Kashmir since Independence, lost all three of its Lok Sabha seats to the People’s Democratic Party. While some regional parties did fine, the overall trend of the election for smaller parties was negative. In 2009, the BJP and Congress combined for 47.4% of the popular vote and 322 seats out of 543. This year, they won 50.3% of the popular vote and 326 seats.
2. The BJP’s Strength Comes from the Hindi Belt– One result that really jumps out to me is that much of the BJP’s support comes from the Hindi-speaking parts of India. Hindi is a very poorly defined language, but the broadest definition of the language would include standard Hindi, the various regional dialects in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, etc., and the languages spoken in Bihar and Rajasthan. If we use this definition, that gives us a Hindi belt containing Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Uttarakhand. These states hold 225 (41%) of the Lok Sabha seats. The BJP, not including its coalition partners, won 190, or 84.4% of these seats. Add in the BJP’s coalition partners, the number goes up to 201 and 89.3%. The rest of India has 318 seats, of which the BJP won 92 or 28.9%. With coalition partners, the numbers go to 135 and 42.5%. To make the difference more visual, I have two maps below, the first with the non-Hindi areas whited-out, the second with the Hindi belt whited-out:
Obviously, the BJP did well in the non-Hindi areas, but its dominance was nowhere near as pronounced as it is in the Hindi belt. As to why the BJP did so much better in the Hindi belt, I can only speculate. The north and west of India have always been more receptive to the Hindu nationalist ideology. One possibility is that the Hindi-speaking peoples don’t have an ethnic identity that transcends caste and religion. People who speak Tamil also belong to the Tamil ethnic group. The same is true for Kashmiris, Bengalis, etc. Hindi is one of only a few languages that does not have an ethnic group attached to it. As a result, religious and caste identities play a larger role in the Hindi belt in defining a person’s identity. It is probably not a coincidence that caste-based parties such as the BSP and SP typically do much better in the north, although they did poorly this year.
3. Congress Lacks an Obvious Base from which to Launch a Comeback– The other aspect of this map that I find striking is how comprehensive Congress’s defeat was. Congress didn’t just lose a few critical swing areas, but hold onto its strongholds; it lost nearly everywhere. This wasn’t John Kerry in 2004; it was George McGovern in 1972. Even in areas that the BJP failed to win, Congress lost badly to the key regional parties. Obviously, Narendra Modi could stumble, but it looks like Congress has a lot of work to do even to be competitive on a national level, let alone win a general election. This election showed that all of Congress’s post-Independence goodwill has totally evaporated. If the party wants to win in the future, it will have to move away from relying on its admittedly illustrious history being enough to win it votes by default. I also think that it’s time for the Gandhi family to go. Congress hasn’t had a leader with any real political talent since Indira Gandhi, and even she had a very problematic legacy as Prime Minister. Jawaharlal Nehru was a legend and India’s most important leader other than Mohandas Gandhi, but there is no reason that his mediocre great-grandson should be in control of what is still India’s second largest party. Congress needs to become a true left-wing party to provide a counterweight to the BJP. It should not continue as a vehicle for members of the Gandhi family who have nothing better to do with their time.
Finally, I just wanted to consider how Indian politics might look now if Partition had never occurred. It has been argued, persuasively in my opinion, that Partition created the conditions necessary for radical Islam to flourish in Pakistan. Obviously, it is too soon to tell if Narendra Modi will end up moderating like Atal Vajpayee, the last BJP Prime Minister, or catering to the radical Hindu fringe of his party. Still I wonder if Partition didn’t create the necessary conditions for Hindu fundamentalism as well, but the effects have been delayed by luck and better leadership in India. Hindu-Muslim relations in north India have always been worse than in the rest of the country, and India as currently constituted is politically dominated by the north. I wonder if an undivided India, with 500 million Muslims instead of 180 million would have elected a party like the BJP. Right now, Muslims are too geographically dispersed to be a powerful voting block. But the BJP won only 9% of the Muslim vote, according to this New York Times article. If they’d had to compete in Lahore, Peshawar, or Chittagong, that level of Muslim support probably would have been crippling to Modi’s Prime Ministerial hopes. It has been clear for years that a Pakistan ripped away from the traditions of South Asia and reoriented towards the Muslim world will suffer from a lethal combination of extremism and rudderlessness. I wonder if a democratic India, shorn of two thirds of its Muslims, lacks a necessary check on the authoritarian tendencies of its Hindu nationalists, but we’re only just starting to realize it.
Update 07/30/2014: When I first wrote this post, I neglected to mention how Modi’s election could change India’s relationship with the United States. To me, it isn’t yet clear what effect the new Prime Minister will have. President Obama apparently had a strong personal relationship with Manmohan Singh, but the U.S. disengaged from India under Obama, possibly because it was clear that the Congress government would not recover from numerous corruption scandals and was essentially living on borrowed time. Now that the Indian government has a strong mandate, perhaps the U.S. will seize the opportunity to recommit to the relationship with India despite the fraught history the U.S. has with Narendra Modi. Modi was the subject of a travel ban in the aftermath of the 2002 riots in Gujarat, but that ban has been lifted, and Modi is expected to visit Washington D.C. in September. On the American side, Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to India this week and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will follow next week. Modi has billed himself as an economically focused leader, which could lead to improved economic ties with the United States if, as promised, he passes reforms that make it easier to do business in India. In the short-term, the U.S. is likely to be cautious with Modi, trying to balance the need to strengthen one of the U.S.’s most important relationships in Asia while also remaining wary for now about Modi’s checkered past and questionable commitment to multiculturalism and democratic values.