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Power Play: India’s Shifting Political Landscape

Three questions to Christophe Jaffrelot

INTERVIEW - 16 March 2022

India’s recent state elections emphasize the extent to which the country’s political landscape is changing. Amidst growing political polarization, parties are playing on identity issues to further their electoral goals ahead of the 2024 election. In the wake of the economic devastation caused by the Covid-19 crisis, few attempts have been made at recovering or restructuring public policy. On the contrary, the success of parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has shown that the economy plays a small role in determining electoral outcomes. Christophe Jaffrelot, Senior Research Fellow at CERI (Centre de Recherches Internationales) at Sciences Po, considers what India’s recent elections mean for the country’s future. 

What lessons can be learnt from India’s recent elections, and the results announced on March 10?

Between February and March, five states in India were called to the polls in order to vote in the Assembly elections. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP, took or retained power in four of these states. This included Uttar Pradesh, the political heavyweight state with over 200 million inhabitants, on which all eyes were glued during the election period. This success reflects a major trend in Indian politics: that the Hindu nationalism embodied by the BJP has become hegemonic. Its principles, promoted by Narendra Modi's national-populism, are now embedded at a regional level. 
 
In Uttar Pradesh, the outgoing Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, the priest of the Goraknath temple, has promoted a variant of this model by emphasizing the fight against delinquents (including those of the Muslim faith) in the name of law and order. The state police are thus making a point of eliminating them by adopting methods worthy of the Philippines’ Rodrigo Dutertre. Apart from this particular aspect - and the fact that he is the first religious man to head a government - Yogi Adityanath is following Modi's strategy of (1) polarizing the electorate and marginalizing minorities along an ethno-religious divide, (2) appealing to the poorest with welfare packages, conveniently just before the elections, and (3) appealing to some of the lower castes, where the poor are over-represented. 

Let us recall that in India, more than anywhere else, populism is an instrument of revenge for the elites, who feel threatened by the rise of the lower castes.

The last point deserves further explanation. While the BJP claims, in a calculated move, to be turning its back on casteism (the gravedigger of Hindu unity), the party is actually promoting representatives of lower caste groups, which lower caste parties and affirmative action policies have long neglected. As a result, the BJP’s electorate is seen as a coalition of extremes, since, alongside the non-elite and rural supporters, the party remains a high-caste formation whose members dominate the government. Let us recall that in India, more than anywhere else, populism is an instrument of revenge for the elites, who feel threatened by the rise of the lower castes.

How are these elections shaping India’s political landscape? 

These regional elections have significant national implications. First, they strengthen the position of the BJP, which had not won a single regional election in Uttar Pradesh since 2017. Narendra Modi proudly declared that his 2024 re-election has just been decided in Uttar Pradesh. 

Second, these elections represent a severe blow to the Congress party, whose power has been eroded not only in Uttar Pradesh (where it only won one seat), but also in Punjab, where it suffered a crushing defeat. Congress now only governs two states (but participates in majority coalitions in two others). 

Third, these elections saw an opposition party gain clout: the Aam Aadmi Party (the Common Man Party). After obtaining leadership in Delhi in 2020 - the only state it has governed to date - the party won the Punjab election in a landslide victory. This suggests that the party could potentially become an alternative to the BJP (and Congress) in many other Indian states, and participate in a coalition of regional anti-BJP parties in 2024.

What consequences could these elections have for public policy? 

The success of the BJP in four of the five states risks reinforcing Narendra Modi's long-held belief that elections in India are not won on economic grounds, but are rather determined by identity politics. This is illustrated by the fact that the BJP, whose management of the Covid-19 crisis was disastrous (scientists estimate India’s deaths at 4 million), causing an escalation in both unemployment and poverty, still manages to escape the traditional norms and measures of accountability. Rather than devoting more time to the country’s economy, which will inevitably suffer from the rising price of hydrocarbons (which India imports almost entirely), the Covid-19 crisis has shown the party that it can get away with ineffective policies. 

The success of the BJP in four of the five states risks reinforcing Narendra Modi's long-held belief that elections in India are not won on economic grounds, but are rather determined by identity politics.

In Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath’s victory risks affirming his five-year campaign for anti-Muslim radicalization, suggesting that it should be continued. Members of his political circle have already announced that, since the Muslims did not vote for the BJP, the party will now prevent Muslim families from receiving social benefits. Such a development would mark a further step towards the establishment of a Hindu state. This transition is already underway. The police have taken over the role of militias - such as the Hindu Yuva Vahini (Hindu Youth Brigade) created by Yogi Adityanath in the early 2000s - and are in charge of "disciplining" Muslims. Men in uniforms are now fighting against interfaith marriages between Hindus and Muslims, and religious mixing in certain neighborhoods, through the authorization of new laws (or by bypassing legal frameworks altogether). 

To conclude, a note of caution is necessary. If state elections carry a lot of weight, it is because India remains a federal state. Nevertheless, national politics continue to retain a distinct framework, and the conclusions drawn from state politics will not necessarily determine the outcome on a national level. What is certain, however, is that India’s electoral makeup is changing, and that political polarization is taking on an ever greater, and more dangerous, role. 
 
 
 

 

Copyright: PRAKASH SINGH / AFP

 

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