3 Political Trends the Indian General Election Has Demonstrated

by Narinder Kapur

19 May 2014

Narendra Modi is India’s new Prime Minister-elect. This is the news that has been dominating domestic as well as international news media since 16 May when electoral results declared the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) the winner by the largest ever margin in an election since 1984. The BJP and the coalition it leads – the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) – won 336 out of 545 seats in the lower house, the Lok Sabha. The win has been described by many as the beginning of a new era in Indian politics, led by Narendra Modi who shall be sworn in as Prime Minister in the coming weeks. However these elections also point toward certain trends that may come to dominate the political theatre in India, none of which indicate a bright future for political diversity or public debate.

1. The rise and rise of personality politics.

For most of its independence, India has been under the rule of the Gandhi family (no relation of Mahatma Gandhi), from which three former Prime Ministers have hailed. Indeed, some have even referred to the Prime Ministerial position as the ‘birthright’ of the family. However while these elections have been the worst for the Gandhi-led Indian National Congress (INC), the election of Narendra Modi presents another question to ponder over: If these elections have showed the triumph of an individual over a dynasty at the national level, do elections then become personality-led rather than party-led? This will be particularly interesting at future state-level elections. The election campaign of the BJP does seem to point towards this, with the party focusing on hyping Modi and his achievements rather than the party itself.

The PR firm hired by Modi and the BJP, APCO Worldwide, is one of the largest and most influential in the world with revenues of over $110 million and a Washington DC headquarters. Indeed. Modi’s campaign resembled a US presidential campaign, and with Modi’s win we may be looking at the emergence of personality cults, rehashing of the old dynastic cult of Indian politics.

2. Money talks.

While it’s no secret that money talks the talk and walks the walk in elections all over the world, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has tried to curb candidate expenses by limiting them 70 lakh rupees (approx. £70,000). However, there are no limits on how much a political party itself can spend. These elections saw an advertising and public relations blitzkrieg as each party tried to outdo the other in terms of the sheer amount of advertisements they put out and the rallies they held. However, corporate backing won the day as the BJP is estimated to have spent about £500m in campaign expenditure across the country. It is well-known that billionaire corporate families such as the Adanis and Ambanis contributed massively towards Modi’s campaign, but they played it safe along with other corporate figures by contributing similar amounts to those donated to other parties such as the INC. However, the lack of information surrounding the expenditure of this money indicates the rise of corporate influence on election campaigns themselves. With analysts claiming that over $6bn has been spent in the elections, and the ECI seizing $43m in illegal cash, one wonders how and to whom the ‘favour’ will be returned in the coming months. Indeed, in a certain way it already has, with the national stock markets hitting all-time highs in the days preceding the declaration of the results as well as the day of the results themselves: Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani alone swept up £1.4bn between them.

3. The media is throwing its weight behind neoliberals.

This is the one trend which every thinking Indian must be afraid of, simply because of the way the Indian mainstream media covered the electoral process. Forget debate, newsrooms became heated centres of accusations and counter-accusations as each party representative sought to vilify or glorify just one individual: Narendra Modi. While Modi was perhaps the most polarising figure of the entire election, the amount of coverage given to him and his party is astounding, with independent research organisation CMS claiming that Modi received over 2575 minutes – or 33.21% – of coverage during prime-time news telecasts while the next candidate receiving only 10.31% of coverage. The BJP also dominated party coverage with over a third of it, with the next party (the INC) trailing by over ten percentage points.

Since the BJP runs on neoliberal economic policies, perhaps it was no surprise to see corporate media houses implicitly approving of the party and its Prime Ministerial candidate. It is not to say the Indian mainstream media has ever been ‘objective’, but these elections represent the first time in the history of post-liberalisation India that the media has openly given such coverage to an individual, much less the political space and institutions the individual belongs to. However this calls into question the changing role of Indian media as it increasingly softens to the neoliberal stance espoused by the government that shall soon take office.

Modi’s election is a huge win for the likes of Gautam Adani, Mukesh Ambani and India’s media owners, and they are likely to gain from the policies and legislation of the incoming government. The effects of these trends upon the Indian population, however, remain to be seen.

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