Why the political world is focussed on India’s election results

With more than 800 million people voting in India’s parliamentary elections, the results due tomorrow (16 May) will determine if the world’s largest democracy and a rising economic power gets a stable government.

Dr Rekha Diwakar, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sussex, looks at the people and parties involved in the contest – and examines some of the likely outcomes.

What is the significance of these elections?

The 16th elections to the lower house of India’s Parliament (the Lok Sabha) were held in nine phases between 7 and 12 May, and the results will be announced on 16 May – a remarkable feat given the scale of the exercise involving over 800 million voters. 

The Indian party system has witnessed fragmentation since the 1990s, and the two main national parties - Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - have needed the support of regional and state parties to form coalition governments at the national level.

These elections assume greater significance since an unclear verdict could lead to political instability and lack of consensus on much needed economic reforms.

Another important highlight of these elections is the participation of a new 'Aam Aadmi (common man) Party' (AAP) which emerged out of an anti-corruption civil society movement.

These elections are being followed closely within and outside India, given the fact that India is the world's largest democracy and a rising economic power.   

Who are the front-runners in the contest?

The incumbent Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the BJP- led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) are the key pre-poll blocs or alliances competing to form the national government. The composition of these blocs has not remained the same, and opportunistic alliance making has become a regular feature of Indian politics.

Although India follows a Parliamentary form of government, the current elections are widely seen as a leadership contest between Narendra Modi of the BJP, the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, and Congress’ Vice President Rahul Gandhi. Modi is seen as an effective leader, and is the clear front-runner in the contest to become the next Prime Minister.

What results are the polls predicting?

Most exit polls predict BJP-led NDA to form the government, albeit with different seat shares, while Congress is predicted to slump to its worst ever performance. Pre-poll alliances are already in place, with the BJP claiming to have alliances with 25 parties, the first of its kind on this scale.

Congress-led UPA also comprises many key regional and state level parties.

Few important regional parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) have however decided not to join either the UPA or NDA, and would decide which bloc they will support after the election results are announced. 

AAP is not expected to win many seats, although it may affect the outcome in some marginal urban constituencies.   

What is the mostly likely outcome?

As is predicted by most exit polls, NDA is likely to get a clear majority and form the government without needing the support of any new alliance partners. A highest ever voter turnout and Modi’s charismatic personality could help the NDA to achieve this result. This scenario would provide India a relatively stable government, and in anticipation, its stock markets have seen a major rise.   

What will happen if there is no clear majority?

Another outcome could be where the NDA emerges as the largest bloc but is unable to win a clear majority. This would necessitate it to seek support from other parties in order to form the government. Narendra Modi has insisted there is no 'electoral untouchability' when it comes to making post-poll alliances and the BJP wants to keep the lines of communication open with other regional parties. Key regional leaders – Mayawati of BSP, J. Jayalalithaa of AIADMK and Mamata Banerjee of TMC could play an important role in that situation. However, such a coalition would be less stable, and BJP would need to hold this diverse coalition together through compromises in terms of policy agenda, and negotiate distribution of  ministerial berths to its allies.  This is not an unrealistic outcome given the range of error we saw in the exit polls conducted in the previous few elections.   

An unlikely outcome is the possibility of a non-BJP, non-Congress led coalition government. If Congress is able to win substantially more seats than predicted by exit polls, it could play a major role in a potential non-BJP led coalition. Although Congress’ stated position is not to support any other front at the Centre, going by its past record, it may decide to support a non-BJP front. This outcome would lead to instability since a fragmented 'Third Front' would be at the mercy of the Congress' support for its survival.

India follows the first-past-the-post electoral system and, since most contests in these elections are expected to be multi-party, the margin of victory cannot be accurately predicted. Although BJP-led government is the most likely scenario, it is not clear if they will be able to get a clear majority, or will need further alliance making to form the government. Irrespective of the outcome, these elections demonstrate yet again that democracy continues to do well in India – a non-trivial achievement given the country’s size and social diversity. 

By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Tuesday, 27 May 2014