Eyes on India as world’s largest democracy begins voting

The world’s largest democracy, India, will head for a general election between April and May to chart its political future for the next five years. With at least 900 million voters, it is hardly surprising that the election is being referred as the “festival of democracy” with the voting taking seven different days in the span of two months to be completed. Legislative assembly elections will also be held in several states during this period.

While there are many political parties across India, attention will mainly focus on the two main coalitions in the country namely, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) under the leadership of incumbent Prime Minister, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which is linked to Rahul Gandhi, from one of the oldest parties in the country, the Indian National Congress (INC). Stakes are high for the election and its impacts are likely to transcend beyond the borders of India, which is pushing to raise its profile abroad.

Based on a survey published in January 2019 by the Times of India, jobs is likely to be a top election issue for voters at all-level this time around.  At least 38.7% of the respondents asked indicated that the issue will be a key deciding factor as the country continues to grow but has yet to create enough jobs for its expanding population. With each passing month for the next several years, there will be an estimated one million people turning 18, which has also been the voting age since 1988. Adding to that, more than half of India’s population are below the age of 25 and with that in mind, politicians would need to make sure that their election manifestos are able to appeal to this voters’ segment that are likely to be kingmakers. Apart of jobs, other basic necessities such as decent healthcare as well as clean drinking water will also be playing in voters’ minds as they head to the ballot boxes. While clean drinking water could be ubiquitous in the developed world, more than half of the Indian population are still having problem accessing it for daily usage.  As in previous elections, politicians are likely to tussle on this issue as lack of adequate water and sanitation have been significantly impending social and economic developments in the past. Likewise, the issue of healthcare is also a major issue as the government spending on this sector is among the lowest in the world, hovering at just 1%.

Although the general focus has been on domestic issues, Modi has also found an unlikely ally in his campaign- the Pakistani card. Relationship between the two countries have been rocky for the past few years and the recent terror attack in Pulwama and subsequent cross border raids have also complicated things between these two South Asian rivals. So far, Modi appeared to have taken a harder stance against Pakistan despite the new government in Islamabad under the leadership of Imran Khan offering to hold talks on several occasions. Modi clearly understands that engaging with Khan could open up another opportunity for the opposition to attack him for being “too soft” and it could also affect the support toward him as most Indians are still deeply suspicious of Pakistan up till today.  Having said that, political parties in India regardless of the incumbent or opposition are unlikely to depart from the status quo to normalize relationship with Pakistan during the election period, knowingly that it does not bode well with the voters.

 

With a myriad of political parties anticipated to participate in the elections, the contest could also be described as a ‘festival of parties’. This is as a single state may have dozens of parties participating for the same seat. In 2014’s general elections, almost 500 registered and unregistered parties participated. In addition to political ideologies, voters are often divided based on regional and tribal loyalties and this translates to a diverse political landscape where one party will find it difficult to win the elections at the national level without forming coalitions. Even at the national level, there are seven registered national parties that have enough resources to contest in several different states. Of the seven, the BJP and INC have been projected by pundits as having the most realistic chance of forming India’s next federal government.

With the elections anticipated to be hotly contested, both the BJP and INC may ultimately have to rely on their respective coalitions, the NDA and UDP respectively to tip the results in their favour i.e. securing the 272 seats needed to form a government.  It is important to note that in the 2014 elections, the BJP only won 31% of the popular vote which was barely enough to secure a majority. Assuming a repeat of 2014’s results is unlikely, both sides are now campaigning in different states to not only raise support among supporters but also to form alliances with other parties that may not necessarily share the same ideology. This is especially true for INC’s mega-coalition initiative that will have a distinct anti-Modi goal but little else in common. Both sides will tap into these regional alliances and regardless of the election results, some form of power sharing will occur at the federal and state level. How fractured the future government of India will depend on how heavily coalition parties be relied on to secure the votes.

 

Political campaigns including mass rallies are now ongoing nationwide and is expected to only settle down after the general elections. Many of these rallies have seen a high turnout especially in rallies lead by the BJP and INC, causing traffic congestions around the rally sites.  With dozens of parties campaigning in a single state, rival rallies could occur at the same time adding to the disruption. Generally, these political rallies have proceeded peacefully however scuffles have occurred between supporters on several occasions, causing minor injuries.

A more concerning trend are the targeted shootings of political party members during this election season. Since the start of 2019, several shootings targeting party workers and even local leaders have been recorded in different parts of India on a monthly basis. Given the scale of elections, the shootings are thought to be sporadic and have caused little collateral damage. Nevertheless, they still highlighted the danger of approaching large political gatherings while election season is on.  Be sure to monitor the Safeture application regularly as the latest locations of major rallies are constantly updated.

At the same time, the risk of terrorists targeting the elections is always a possibility anywhere in the country. A Pulwama bombing or Mumbai shooting-style attack is expected to be a prime concern for India’s security service to prevent. Harder still to prevent would be lone-wolf style attacks, using more rudimentary tactics such as stabbing or vehicle ramming.  A large gathering of ‘soft targets’ during a politically sensitive period would be an ideal target of a terrorist attack.

Travelers should also anticipate other associated disruptions as election day would likely see a public holiday in different states depending on the election schedule. State governments around India such as Uttarakhand and Tamil Nadu have already announced public holidays that will possibly see not only many shops closing but also the suspension of government services on election day. Plan ahead and keep track of the schedules while staying aware of potential security threats in real-time using Safeture to avoid disruptions and safety hazards during this election season.

 

 

Adam Yusoff
GWS Analyst
Security risk analyst based in Kuala Lumpur