Elections in India seem both implausible and inevitable. Implausible because a country so wildly diverse, encompassing 22 different languages and 720 dialects, with large religious minorities and a majority religion, Hinduism, divided among many hierarchically organized and often mutually hostile castes, seems unlikely to have the level of social trust and tolerance required to allocate power peacefully through the ballot box. Inevitable because such a fragmented country, and one never unified before the British rule in the nineteenth century, can hold together only through the peaceful resolution of its many differences, for which elections are indispensable. In fact, during the seven decades of the country’s independence, free, fair, regular elections have become part of the fabric of Indian life, evoking eager anticipation and wide and enthusiastic participation on the part of the country’s 1.3 billion people.
Ruchir Sharma’s Democracy on the Road: A 25-Year Journey through India provides a sense of the sights and sounds, the flavor and the texture of these remarkable national rituals. The author, a native of India who is the Chief Global Strategist at the Morgan Stanley bank in New York and is best known for his writings on economic topics, has for the past 25 years organized trips for a group of journalists to observe at firsthand election campaigns through the country. He has conducted these political tours during both the national elections that take place every five years and the numerous state elections that are held in between.
He paints a vivid picture of the carnival atmosphere in which Indians select their leaders: the large, boisterous rallies, the colorful and often (by Western standards) eccentric candidates, and the catchy slogans that serve as distilled arguments for the parties and individuals seeking office. He also describes the corruption that pollutes Indian politics and government: candidates routinely far exceed campaign spending limits and government officials use their positions to enrich themselves, their families, and their friends. Although completed before the 2019 general election, which took place over six weeks in April and May (there is no single Election Day in Indian national elections), Sharma’s book helps to explain its outcome and its implications for India’s future.
More than 600 million Indians voted in what was, as all nation-wide elections in the world’s most populous democracy are, the largest such exercise in the history of the planet. In the end, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its prime minister, Narendra Modi, won a sweeping victory. Having gained a majority in the Lok Sabha, the national parliament in New Delhi, in the previous election in 2014, this year the BJP increased its total from 282 to 303 of the 543 seats. (With allied parties the number is 352.)
It owes its success in no small part to its leader. In Modi it has a powerful orator, an energetic campaigner, and a man whose life story—rising from humble beginnings as the son of a tea-seller—resonates with millions of Indians. In his first term as prime minister he compiled an eminently respectable record of governance, with economic growth averaging more than 7 percent.
Moreover, the BJP benefits from a mass movement associated with it, the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevek Sangh (RSS), by some accounts the largest voluntary organization in the world with five million members, who can be mobilized to work on behalf of the party. Modi himself joined the movement at an early age.
The BJP was able, as well, to capitalize on the shortcomings of its principal opponent, the Indian National Congress, which led the country to independence in 1947, gave India its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and dominated its politics for the first three decades of independence. The Congress is the only other political party with a national reach. Very roughly speaking, and with many exceptions and considerable overlap, while the BJP advocates growth-promoting economic politics and Hindu nationalism, the Congress stands for redistributionist schemes and secular politics, with religion deemphasized or excluded entirely.
For decades the Congress leadership has been the personal property of the Nehru-Gandhi family, passing from Nehru to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, then to her son Rajiv, both of whom also served as prime minister and were both assassinated in office. Now Rajiv’s Italian-born wife Sonia dominates Congress from behind the scenes: her son Rahul is its public face and was the party’s candidate for prime minister in 2019. Sharma and his colleagues have encountered Rahul several times over the years and while he shows improvement as a politician, it is clear from the author’s account that he lacks the personal qualities that make Modi compelling to Indians—and this in a political system in which personality counts for a great deal. The weak leadership that the Nehru family has provided to Congress weighed on its electoral performance this year.
In increasing its majority the BJP overcame several electoral handicaps. It began as a party of and for upper-caste Hindus, and while it has tried over the years to expand its appeal, it holds no attraction for Muslims and relatively little for Hindus of the lower castes, who make up a large part of the Indian electorate. (It did better this year with lower-caste Hindus than in the past.) In addition, the BJP’s strength is concentrated in northern India. While it did unexpectedly well this year in the eastern state of West Bengal, it has a very light footprint—or none at all—in the southern states, where people tend to be less fervent about religion and resent any effort to compel them to use the north’s preferred language, Hindi, which the BJP is sometimes suspected of wishing to do.
As is to be expected in such a large and diverse country, moreover, India’s states differ significantly from one another, which has made them fertile soil for parties confined to a particular state that emphasize local concerns. In their respective states they compete with, and sometimes surpass, the BJP and the Congress. In Uttar Pradesh, for example, two local parties, the Samajwadi and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), regularly outpoll them and the leaders of these parties have served as the state’s chief minister. The strength of the state-based parties means that the two national ones have regularly failed to gain clear majorities in both state assemblies and the national legislature, so that multiparty coalitions have been needed to form governments. That is what most observers expected to happen nationally this year, but the BJP confounded their expectations by improving on its already impressive 2014 performance.
Its massive victory raises four major questions about India’s future under its rule. The first is whether Modi will use his mandate to implement reforms that, while not popular politically, can enhance the country’s long-term potential for economic growth. While the 7 percent annual increases of his first term as prime minister would be received with delight (and no little astonishment) in an advanced industrial democracy, India is poor enough to aspire to Chinese-style double-digit yearly growth in its GDP. To achieve this, however, it must put state-owned enterprises in private hands, roll back the country’s high tariff barriers, ease restrictive labor laws that discourage business expansion, and change the regulations governing land ownership and banking. Sharma writes that he once believed that “for India to become an economic miracle it needed a mass-based leader who would push free-market reform aggressively”—a leader like Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher. Modi had the political strength but not the personal inclination to pursue such a course after 2014. He now has a second opportunity to do so. Whether he chooses to take it will help shape the country’s economic future.
The second important question is how far Modi and his government will fulfill his party’s promise (many would call it a threat) to make India an avowedly Hindu country rather than an officially secular one—at the expense of its religious minorities, 172 million of whom are Muslims. India is far too big, diverse, and disorderly to make feasible the nation-wide imposition of strict religious rule, as in Saudi Arabia. Non-Hindus, however, have experienced discrimination and violence in the past, and these could increase in the next five years. The BJPs “virulent social media campaign,” according to the Financial Times, “was awash with anti-Muslim rhetoric.”
The third question the BJP’s resounding electoral success raises is whether Modi will try to follow an all-too-familiar contemporary pattern and make himself an autocrat, like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Something like a cult of personality has formed around the prime minister and India has experienced the suspension of democratic governance once before, when Indira Gandhi declared an “emergency” for 21 months in 1975-1977.
Sharma’s account of the country’s elections shows this possibility to be very remote. After almost 75 years of them, elections have become deeply ingrained in Indian life. The public expects them and takes part in them at a very high rate; two-thirds of all eligible voters cast ballots this year, a considerably higher percentage than Western democracies achieve. It is doubtful in the extreme that any leader, no matter how strong, popular, and determined, could do away with them or would even try.
Fourth and finally, assuming the continuation of free, fair, and regular elections, will the BJP continue to dominate them? It has clearly eclipsed the Congress. Yet its electoral performance this year may have surpassed its actual standing in the country. It received substantial assistance from an unexpected quarter: Pakistan. In February a suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden vehicle into a convoy of Indian security personnel in Kashmir, the Muslim-majority Indian state that has been the subject of a political dispute between the two countries, and the scene of considerable violence, since India and Pakistan became independent in 1947. Forty Indians died. A Pakistan-based terrorist group claimed responsibility for the attack.
In response, Modi ordered an air attack on Pakistani targets that may or may not have done modest damage. He then proceeded to base his electoral campaign on appeals to patriotism, portraying himself as the unyielding defender of the Indian nation. That appeal very likely earned his party more votes than it would have received if the terrorist attack had not occurred.
Unless Pakistan obliges with more terrorism—a distinct possibility, unfortunately, given the commitment of the Pakistani military, which controls the country, to harassing India—the result of this year’s election, with the government increasing its majority, is unlikely to be repeated. Instead, the anti-incumbent pattern that is more common will in all probability reassert itself, and for a reason that emerges from Sharma’s account of his political travels.
The urge, to use the American phrase, to “throw the bums out” turns out to be recurrent and powerful in India. A principal reason for this, as Democracy on the Road makes clear, is that the performance of Indian governments at all levels consistently disappoints. All across the country the governmental services on which people depend are frequently substandard or missing entirely. Sharma’s traveling party constantly has to cope with bad roads. It visits villages with poor sanitation and where schoolteachers seldom show up for work. The group frequently finds itself having to endure power outages. It comes across examples of a sclerotic system of justice, including a protracted legal wrangle over the ownership of Sharma’s grandfather’s house, during which the property deteriorates badly. Compared with Western democracies and neighboring China, India has a weak, dysfunctional state.
Indian voters suffer the consequences of this widespread weakness and dysfunction in their daily lives. While 2019 was an exception, they tend to vote accordingly, in protest against those who happen to control the state machinery when the election takes place. If, as in the past, the new government in New Delhi and the various state governments that will be elected during its five-year term of office don’t do better, the voters will register their disapproval in what has become, over more than seven decades, the time-honored Indian way: at the ballot box.