Late this spring, India will hold its 16th general election. The vote will pit the forces of progressivism, which celebrate cultural and social pluralism and promote equity and good governance but appears singularly incapable of policy implementation, against the forces of cultural and religious nationalism, which promote rapid economic growth and political order but show little regard for social justice, religious and ethnic minorities, or the rule of law. The outcome of the battle could very well reshape the world’s largest democracy.

It is tempting to assume that the two competing visions are neatly encapsulated by the race’s main contenders, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But that would be facile. Congress’ election platform certainly suggests that it remains committed to progressivism. But even a cursory examination of its record in office over the past term suggests that it is not. Further, the BJP, which many believe squarely falls into the second category, has not always maintained political order. Some of the worst communal violence, after all, has taken place under its watch. Indeed, despite the BJP’s critique of Congress’ abysmal performance, it has been unable to offer any viable alternative. Although reliable and valid opinion polls are scant, it should not come as a surprise when neither party obtains a clear-cut mandate.

The Indian public has been greatly disappointed by Congress’ performance as the leading party within the United Progressive Alliance regime, which has ruled India since 2004. During its first term in office (2004–9), the UPA presided over substantial economic growth, successfully concluded a major agreement on civilian nuclear power with the United States, and passed legislation designed to promote greater government accountability. All the while, it pursued generally progressive social policies. However, in its second term, the UPA seemed to lose its way. Several of its party members were indicted for involvement in corruption schemes. Particularly dispiriting was the case of Andimuthu Raja, a cabinet member who was implicated in the dubious allocation of the 2G mobile phone spectrum -- a scandal involving roughly $40 billion. Worse still, economic growth in recent years has plummeted to less than five percent per year, and the prospects of jump-starting it seem remote.

Mired in scandal and unable to tackle a host of pressing economic issues -- badly outdated labor laws, byzantine regulations on foreign investment, and a steadily falling rupee -- the government lost much popular support. Amidst internecine battles within the government between those who favored more market-friendly policies and others most concerned with social equity coupled with an obstreperous and uncooperative opposition, policy paralysis was the order of the day.

The BJP’s performance in the opposition has not been exemplary, either. It attempted to stall legislation at every turn, its members have routinely disrupted parliamentary proceedings, and the party has offered few, if any, viable alternatives to the ruling regime’s preferred policies. It could have cooperated with the UPA to pass acceptable legislation and offered innovative ideas about dealing with India’s neighbors. Instead, it has merely harped on the failures of the ruling coalition and criticized its putative mollycoddling of religious minorities. 

The BJP’s chosen candidate for the position of prime minister, Narendra Modi, has a disturbing past. It was during his tenure as the chief minister of Gujarat that a pogrom against the state’s Muslims took place. Admittedly, the Supreme Court of India has formally exonerated him of all charges. However, he remains a deeply divisive figure. And given his party’s record of hostility toward secularism, it is not difficult to speculate how a government under his leadership might treat ethnic and religious minorities. Even his much-vaunted record of promoting economic growth in Gujarat is not free of blemishes. Although he was successful in attracting investment and promoting industrial growth, his administration did little to promote economic equality or implement existing environmental safeguards.

There are two other national parties as well, but neither of these -- the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) -- offers much hope. Both have been in secular decline for well over a decade. Their criticisms of India’s fitful attempts at market-friendliness are predictable, and their rhetoric against India’s closeness with the United States is tired. The parties have little to proffer the Indian voter. The most they can claim is that they remain India’s only firm defenders of secularism, but even that assertion has its limits. They have demonstrated a willingness to swiftly defend any attack on India’s Muslim minority but are unwilling to countenance the very real dangers that radical Islam poses to India’s political order. 

Indian voters are now faced with a conundrum. On the one hand, they can vote for Congress and the UPA because of their commitments, however flawed, to secularism and social justice. On the other, they may be tempted to vote for the BJP because of the UPA’s failure to promote growth and employment and maintain public order. Either way, they understand that they will not likely get the policies for which they bargained. Instead, they can be assured that they are in for a period of political instability with a fractious coalition regime that is unable to forge a viable working consensus. And that is why levels of participation in the upcoming elections will be crucial. If a substantial segment of the electorate simply stays home, the outcome of the election, already uncertain, could become even less predictable.


If, as is highly likely, the Indian electorate delivers a fractured verdict on Congress and the BJP later this year, a range of regional parties and their leaderships will play a significant role in shaping India’s parliament, especially if they end up with significant numbers of seats in the Lok Sabha (or lower house of parliament). Such an outcome would constitute a throwback to an earlier era in Indian politics, in which the Congress Party was in disarray, the BJP lacked any parliamentary strength, and an assortment of regional parties cobbled together a government in New Delhi. 

The likeliest winner in this scenario is the Samajwadi Party, under the current leadership of Akhilesh Yadav, a political neophyte, in Uttar Pradesh. Yadav’s father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, anointed him as his successor in 2012. The younger Yadav, like his father, is mostly a populist and ostensibly concerned about the plight of lower castes and Muslims. But he has continuously disappointed them. His performance as the chief minister of India’s most populous state has been lackluster at best and appalling at worst. He has demonstrated little ability to tackle the state’s endemic poverty. Under his watch, moreover, ethno-religious violence has surged. In the wake of a terrible run of Hindu-Muslim riots in the district of Muzaffarnagar last August, his administration has offered scant comfort to the afflicted Muslims. Worse still, it has demonstrated remarkable callousness toward those Muslims who fled their homes and took refuge in government camps. This winter has been especially harsh in north India. As reports emerged of children in refugee camps dying from exposure, Anil Gupta, a senior bureaucrat in the Uttar Pradesh government, stated, “No one can die of cold. If people die of cold, then nobody will survive in Siberia.” Despite the rank insensitivity of his remark, it elicited no response from the chief minister. As hapless families sought to fend off the elements in makeshift camps, Yadav was busy organizing a cultural extravaganza featuring a string of Bollywood stars. 

Even so, caste loyalties may lead voters to support him. If the Samajwadi Party corners a fraction of the 80 seats that the state commands, he will play a significant role in shaping the next government, especially if neither of the two national parties wins an outright majority. The prospect of the Samajwadi Party playing a decisive role in determining the next coalition regime is frightening. Neither Yadav nor his father has a coherent economic philosophy. They have virtually no experience in foreign affairs and are quite feckless besides.

Another well-positioned politician is Jayalalilthaa Jayaram, the imperious chief minister of the economically vibrant southern state of Tamil Nadu. Although she has been dogged with allegations of corruption, she enjoys considerable support within her home state. Under her watch, Tamil Nadu has enjoyed considerable economic prosperity and a decline in poverty. She has proved a deft political survivor and, so far, has strictly local ambitions. However, she will no doubt seek to wring political concessions from any coalition regime. Given her party’s concern with the plight of fellow Tamils in Sri Lanka, that could undermine a coalition regime’s ability to deal pragmatically with Sri Lanka.

Like her southern counterpart, Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress in the state of West Bengal, has also demonstrated a capacity to be utterly mercurial. Her manner aside, voters may well turn to her because of the lack of viable alternatives. Congress barely has a presence in the state, and the communists are widely disliked. But she is primarily concerned with the large debt burden that she inherited from 30 years of communist misrule. She has repeatedly sought to hold the national government hostage to obtain debt relief. If she senses that a weak coalition needs her parliamentary support, her demands may well become extortionate. 

The discussion would be incomplete without a nod to two other politicians. The first is Nitish Kumar, a member of the Janata Party and the mostly able and pragmatic politician who has presided over a significant turnaround of Bihar, a state that had long been deemed ungovernable. Given his enviable track record as a competent administrator, he will no doubt seek to play a role in shaping any possible coalition government -- and will probably be a positive force. Similarly, Arvind Kejriwal, a former tax bureaucrat and the leader of the Aam Aadmi (or “Common People’s”) Party could pull off an upset in New Delhi. The party started out as an anticorruption movement but won 28 out of a possible 70 seats in the Delhi Legislative Assembly last December. After some deliberation, it chose to form a government with the support of the Indian National Congress. Given its very short stint in office and its single-minded focus on the elimination of corruption in public life, it is too early to tell if it can garner a nationwide following. That said, it would be foolish to write it off.


With politics floundering at the national level and flourishing at the local level, it is possible that the elections will result in a disparate coalition of the BJP and one or more regional parties. Such an outcome could well return India to the conditions of the 1980s, when a fractious and unwieldy coalition regime imperiled economic growth, governance, and political order. Given all the variables, it is exceedingly difficult to tell how such a government would actually govern -- or attack the myriad challenges that besiege the country. Such a coalition would not be able to tackle the mounting problems of governability, sluggish economic growth, and a drifting foreign policy. The hopes that many observers had for a well governed, booming India ready to take its place in the global order now seem increasingly off base. 

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  • SUMIT GANGULY is a Professor of Political Science and holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.
  • More By Sumit Ganguly