An Australian’s Guide to India’s Elections

By Professor Robin Jeffrey
Distinguished Fellow, Australia India Institute

“You can’t tell the players without a program,” hawkers used to shout at sports stadiums.

Every contest needs a program, and the biggest contest of its kind begins in India on 11 April and runs till 19 May.

India’s general elections need a program. There are a lot of players, the rules can be tricky, and the outcome has consequences far beyond photos of smiling winners in next day’s news.

State of play

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), completes a five-year term in May. The BJP and its allies have controlled parliament comfortably since winning more than 340 seats in the 545-seat lower house in 2014. No opposing party won enough seats to qualify as an official opposition. The once-mighty Congress Party, which held office from 2004-14, was reduced to 45 seats.


Like Australia, India has a “Westminster” system of government. A party or coalition must maintain a majority in the lower house (the Lok Sabha or house of the people). Members are elected from first-past-the-post territorial constituencies.

The Election Commission of India is one of the country’s shining institutions. Elections are fair, free and remarkably trouble-free, a notable achievement when there are almost 900 million enrolled voters, at least two-thirds of whom will vote. From 11 March, the chief election commissioner and his delegates have extensive powers to give orders to police and reprimand politicians.

Voting is efficient. It will take five weeks and seven phases of polling to enable the whole country to vote, but once counting begins on 23 May, results will be known in a few hours. The Election Commission uses more than a million tiny stand-alone voting units, at least one for each of a million polling stations. Each voting machine also prints a paper record which a voter sees before it drops into a locked box. In case of disputed returns, the paper record can be measured against the electronic one.


At the top of the list of notables is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP has built its campaign around him. He led the party to the remarkable victory in 2014 – the first single party majority in three decades, and his government of the last five years has some achievements to talk about. There are also aspects to admire in the Modi story: humble, low-status origins; wide travel in India; a proven organiser and operator; 12 years as a successful chief minister of the state of Gujarat; an ability to pick up ideas and find people to carry them out.

However, Modi’s strongest association from his youth has been with the Hindi organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS and its estimated two million members and 6,000 fulltime workers has often provided the grassroots strength for BJP campaigns. Inspired in the 1920s by the fascists of Mussolini’s Italy, the RSS propagates an aggressive version of what a Hindu-majority Indian nation ought to look like and how citizens should behave. Modi’s record during deadly anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 was dubious, and he has shown little inclination to rein in zealots who have attacked those who don’t subscribe to an RSS-style view of the world.

Among the opposition, three names from the Congress Party appear regularly: Rahul Gandhi (party president), Sonia Gandhi (his mother) and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra (Rahul’s sister). Rahul, 48, is the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and father of Indira Gandhi, prime minister for 15 years. Rahul replaced his Italian-born mother, Sonia, as Congress president in 2017. Priyanka, 47, raised supporters’ hopes when she joined the campaign in January. She is said to be an energetic, effective campaigner, and admirers sometimes compare her to her grandmother Indira Gandhi.

Two other women are likely to feature. Mamta Banerjee, 64, is the chief minister of West Bengal and leader of the Trinamool Congress Party, which formed a 34-seat bloc in the outgoing parliament. She’s self-made, tough, unpredictable; simple-living and popular in her state.

Mayawati (usually one name only), 63, is a Dalit (formerly known as “untouchables”), three times chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s largest state. UP sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha. In the 2014 national elections, multi-candidate contests resulted in her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) failing to win a single seat, though in previous elections it has won 21. Wise seat-sharing agreements this time could make Mayawati, like Mamta Banerjee, a key figure in coalition negotiations


There seems little dispute that the BJP and its allies will win 200 or more seats, but fall short of a majority. However, since February, the confrontation with Pakistan over a terrorist bombing and tit-for-tat Indian retaliation could swing a nationalist-inspired electorate towards a tough-talking government. That could put Modi and the BJP firmly in power for another five years.

More likely, various regional parties will each have more than a dozen seats with which to bargain for cabinet places and favours. “Donkey trading,” a former short-lived prime minister, called it back in the 1980s. Narendra Modi would remain prime minister but of a coalition or minority government. For Modi, this would be unfamiliar territory. It’s a long time since he had to cajole or glad-hand anyone.

A less likely outcome is an anti-BJP coalition cobbled-together from the Congress and various regional parties. That’s where aspirants like Mamta Banerjee and Mayawati would see their chances, though the Congress would want Rahul Gandhi as prime minister. Such a government would have difficulty surviving long.

This article was co-published with the Australia India Institute.

Banner image source: Getty Images


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