An American expert’s take
What do recent state elections tell us about the state of India’s democracy, as well as the prospects for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party in the looming national election in 2024?
Global political expert Josh Burgin recently sat down with George E. Bogden for his take. Bogden, a scholar on international affairs, shared his view on the implications of election results that have been largely ignored by American media, even though the number of people who voted was nearly half the population of the U.S. Bogden also expressed his thoughts on why it’s important for all Americans—and especially conservatives—to be cognizant of the consequences of elections in India and the continuation of Modi's premiership.
Great to see you, George. So, what just happened in India?
This week, Indian officials released results for elections in five of the nation’s 28 states, which account for about 160 million Indian voters. Three of the states—Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan—are in the so-called Hindi Heartland where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s conservative Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has built up its majority over the last two general elections. So, this was a seen as a crucial test of Modi’s popularity heading into the next national election, which is expected in less than six months.
And what were the results?
Modi and the BJP had a lot to celebrate. The party not only took back Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan from the center-left main opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC), but actually did so with fairly commanding margins. Similarly, the BJP was able to hang on in Madhya Pradesh for a another term in power. Some were sure that Congress would be able to oust the BJP there, but the ruling party actually increased its majority—quite substantially, in fact.
The real story of these elections is just how strongly the BJP outpaced expectations. A closer contest was expected between the BJP and Congress, but that’s not how things turned out at all.
Didn’t two other states also head to the polls?
India is an extremely complex country with many different languages and just as many political parties. In some states, the regional parties are so powerful that the BJP, Congress, or both are effectively nonfactors. This was largely the case in the tiny northeastern state of Mizoram, where one regional party was unseated by another. In the much larger southern state of Telangana, another incumbent regional party was defeated: this time by Congress. So, that was certainly one bright spot for the opposition amidst an otherwise dreary set of results.
That said, neither state really tells us much about what to expect in the next general election. That’s because it’s principally going to come down to a contest between BJP- and Congress-led blocs in the more populous states in the center and north of the country, which is why the other results serve as a better barometer of what to look for next year.
Fair, but doesn’t the result in Telangana speak to a broader southern weakness for the BJP?
That’s very true. The BJP has always struggled to win in the south. That comes down to a lot of factors, including the party’s strong historic association with Hindi speakers up north. Both Modi and his elections guru, Amit Shah, have worked hard over the years to shed that image and really play in non-Hindi-speaking states like Tamil Nadu, Odisha, and Kerala. They’ve had some notable successes too. But the gains are still coming at the margins. It’s also worth noting that the BJP suffered a fairly comprehensive defeat in a critical southern state, Karnataka, just a few months ago—and the party pulled out all the stops to win there. So, Modi’s BJP still has a long way to go in building a sustainable base outside its natural heartlands.
Wasn’t it Congress that won in Karnataka? Adding to its win in Telangana, is it fair to say Congress is now riding high in the south?
Well, yes and no. Yes, it was Congress that took back Karnataka from the BJP. No, Congress does not own the south. It certainly used to. But that was decades ago. Congress as a standalone party is now either a non-entity, an also-ran, or a middling coalition partner in most southern states—at least besides the two we’re talking about now. Nearly all of India’s southern states have become contests with various region- or language-based parties. Some of the parties are in alliance with either Congress or the BJP at a national level, but those alliances shift and change all the time.
You mentioned alliances with regional parties, so let’s talk about the new opposition alliance that Congress recently stitched together. What is it, and can it really oust Modi next year?
The so-called I.N.D.I.A. coalition—an acronym for Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance—is a grouping of 28 different opposition parties with a single mission: removing the BJP from power. On paper, I.N.D.I.A. seems like it would be a formidable force. The problem is, the parties constituting it have almost no ideological coherence. What they do have is a long history of switching sides, undercutting one another, and demonstrating little deference or respect for the wishes of Congress. Case in point, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is not even acknowledged as the automatic prime ministerial candidate for this grouping. He’s had to contend with other leaders in the bloc for the right to even take on Modi. And that really speaks to just how severely Congress has been weakened since the BJP knocked it from power in 2014.
Just how bad have things gotten for Congress? And why?
In 2009, Congress won 206 seats. In 2014, that dropped to 44. In the most recent election, in 2019, it won a similar number—compared to 303 for the BJP.
And this is a party, remember, that governed India unchallenged for decades.
So, quite a major fall and the reasons behind it are many. To start, the party began as a socialist entity and still broadly clings to a leftish ideology. That worked for the party when left-wing politics meant appealing to workers and the common man. But, just as in the West, India’s Left has become increasingly out of touch with wishes of the average voter. In Congress’ case, that’s compounded by the fact that it has really only ever been led by one family—the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty. That’s a recipe for making any party brittle and incapable of adapting to the future. But the challenge is especially dire for Congress, as its current leader is just so thoroughly outmatched in every way by Modi. Rahul Gandhi has already been beaten comprehensively by the prime minister in two national elections. Yet, the dynastic nature of Congress party means that there really is no one else who could be leader.
And where does this place things for Modi’s chances?
Like I said earlier, the prime minister is looking strong heading into the next national election.
His party has a commanding presence in the belt of Hindi-speaking states that collectively account for about half the seats in parliament. His party won about 80% of those 225 constituencies in the last election. Following the state victories in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan, it’s logical to assume that the BJP can hold on where it matters most.
The BJP is making a major push in other states where it thinks it can make a breakthrough too, such as the Bengali-speaking state of West Bengal or the other states I mentioned earlier.
One of the places it thinks it can grow is with the Muslim community—in particular Muslim women.
That’s interesting, because we often hear in the West about Modi and his party instigating unrest—even violence—against India’s Muslim minority. What’s the story there?
Sadly, communal violence has been a persistent scourge throughout India's history. The BJP is not blameless. Nor are the many other national and regional parties that continue to profit off caste- or religious-based divisions. But what’s truly notable is just how many inroads the BJP has made, and continues to make, with communities it once struggled with. For instance, the Dalit community (sometimes referred to as “untouchables”), or the many tribal and ethnic groups that make up the county’s northeast corridor. Many of these communities practice Christianity or other religions and hardly seem like natural allies for a party often associated with so-called “Hindu nationalism.”
The truth is that the party is orienting itself more towards nationalism, sans qualifier, which has made it an appealing option for Indian voters of all backgrounds. That’s something U.S. Republicans or other conservatives in the West can identify with. The other thing they’ll understand is Modi’s strong association with economic development. And that, after all, is really what voters in an aspiring middle-class country like India want.
Is that the BJP’s secret sauce: nationalism and development?
Ideologically speaking, yes. It’s a lot more complicated than that, but in simplest terms those are the major issues the party is most strongly identified with and by which many in the party often define themselves.
But the secret weapon, if you will, is Narendra Modi himself.
A recent poll revealed 44 percent of Indians saying they would vote for the BJP in the next election due to the person of the prime minister. Development comes in a distant second. And it’s not surprising when you consider that the same poll clocked Modi’s approval rating at 63%. He really is a singular figure in Indian politics. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a prime minister as strong as him since perhaps Indira Gandhi many, many years ago. He is similar to Trump in that his appeal is unique to him, and would not necessarily transfer to another politician.
You mentioned Trump and the relevance of conservatism in India to conservatives in other parts of the world. Can you expand on that?
Well, let’s start by remembering that India is a very unique country with its own set of political conditions. That said, what happens there matters to all of us in the West, and those with a conservative perspective in particular. The BJP is showing what an alternative model of government can look like when compared to, say, China next door. And it seems to be making a conscious effort to tie itself into the broader conservative movement worldwide too. It recently joined the International Democracy Union, which is the major grouping of center-right parties around the world: Republicans in the U.S., Conservatives in the U.K., Australia’s Liberal Party, etc. And it’s building ties between itself and parties like these on its own as well. We also saw the important and close relationship between Modi and Trump when he was in office. Many even said Modi tried to play for influence with the Indian diaspora in the U.S., and perhaps subtly get them to vote Republican. It’s hard to know for sure, but it does seem that Modi and his party see themselves as emerging players in a global conservative movement.
You said it’s important for Westerners to start caring more about India’s internal politics, and many would agree with you. But can you dig a bit more into the ‘why’ behind that statement?
India is not a rising power—it’s a great power that has hit its stride. It’s set to become the world’s third largest economy before the decade is out. And its importance to U.S. foreign policy in not just the Asia-Pacific, but around the world, cannot be overstated. Yet, many in the West still know very little about the Indian subcontinent. I hope we can start to change that in the coming years. As I’ve said many times, India’s democracy is highly complex. It’s messy. But what happens in Delhi, and Chennai, and Lucknow matters just as much as what happens in Paris or Berlin. We may not fully feel that yet, but we will. And if we’re going to work together effectively in the future, then we need to start understanding each other better.
The U.S. has an election coming up in 2024, and its outcome clearly matters for the world. But so does India. Every Indian election is the world’s largest and most fascinating exercise in democracy. Those who grasp that soonest—who take the time to understand the ins and out of India’s politics today, along with its impact—will be on the forefront of foreign policy in the coming decades. And given that the BJP is likely to be a major player in the next election and beyond, conservatives in particular have a real opportunity here.
Any other thoughts?
Yes, some words of caution.
First, state elections aren’t always a great predictor of what plays out federally. Remember that Congress turfed out incumbent BJP state governments in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan the last time out, only to get crushed by Modi’s party in the 2019 national election a few months later. And the BJP itself under a previous prime minister failed to get re-elected in 2004 despite strong state election results similar to these. Many in the party still have bad memories from that experience.
Second, winning a third straight term would be fairly unprecedented in modern Indian history. And, because the BJP won so comprehensively in the last two elections, there’s almost nowhere for the party to go but down in terms of the seat count. Though, I will say that people said the same thing before the last election, only for Modi’s party to actually gain seats.
So, there’s plenty to look forward to and I’m sure plenty to surprise us when Indians actually go to the polls this spring.
George Bogden is Senior Visiting Researcher at Bard College, a Blankley Fellow at the Steamboat Institute, and an Olin Fellow in Law at Columbia Law School.
Joshua M. Burgin serves as the Coordinator of the New Security Leaders Program at the Warsaw Security Forum. For nearly three decades, Burgin has balanced professional interests in domestic U.S. politics and international affairs, focusing on Central and Eastern Europe.