The results of four of the five state-level elections conducted in India over the past month were announced on Sunday, December 8. (Results from the smaller northeastern state of Mizoram were announced today, December 9, and Congress won). Since a series of pre-poll and exit poll surveys had predicted handsome gains for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the actual wins in the four states did not surprise as much as they might have absent the forecasting. But it was a rout for the Indian National Congress, the ruling party in the federal government, and many analysts are suggesting that a sense of BJP momentum will carry ahead to the national elections taking place by May 2014.
There’s no mistake about the magnitude of Congress losses. In a country famous for the "anti-incumbency factor," the BJP retained two states in which they were incumbent, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh (MP), and they’ve picked up more seats for a two-thirds majority in MP. They also took back Rajasthan, with a huge vote swing away from Congress. In Delhi, however, an unexpected result has captured the public’s attention.
The Delhi election saw the rise of a year-old party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), focused on anti-corruption. AAP built its organization from the ground up, and no one was sure how it would affect vote shares of Congress and BJP. The result announced yesterday is definitive in terms of a Congress loss (down to a mere eight seats, and the highly-regarded three-term chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, lost her own seat to the AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal) but not definitive in terms of outcome: the BJP has not secured a simple majority, and the AAP is nipping at their heels. The coming days will see who can form the state government there, or even a re-election to elicit a clearer outcome.
Some analysts will point to these results to predict a BJP wave in the spring national elections. Others will say it’s less clear, since voters may vote differently, and strategically, at the national level as opposed to within their own state. (Indeed, one article quoted an AAP supporter in Delhi stating that he plans to vote BJP in the national elections). In addition, the dynamics of national elections in India involve much more than a bipartisan choice: there are twenty-two recognized regional parties in India, and they play defining roles in many individual states. That’s why the Delhi results suggest something of a harbinger for what might happen at the national level: voters pushing out Congress from the center after ten years, but divided over an affirmative choice for leadership.
So what do these four state-level results portend for India’s foreign policy and international economic choices six months ahead—the question India’s partners around the world will be seeking to answer? The current conventional wisdom is that the pro-business BJP would be more open to international trade and commerce if in power nationally than the United Progressive Alliance government has turned out to be. Based on the BJP’s policies during their time at the center leading the National Democratic Alliance government from 1998 to 2004, that would be a reasonable conclusion. But in opposition, the BJP has stymied numerous efforts to continue economic liberalization, including policies which they had initiated when in office. They also famously refused to support the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal, which went all the way to a confidence vote in parliament during the summer of 2008, barely passing in the end. If the BJP reverts to their pre-2004 positions, that would suggest more momentum for U.S.-India relations, but their recent track record has not given any signs in this direction.
The other outcome suggested by the Delhi results (again, useful since the contest had more than two significant parties, similar to the pattern throughout much of India) could be substantial gains for regional parties at the expense of national parties. Here, the question of coalition formation becomes critically important. A coalition cobbled together from many regional parties with no obvious alignment in their agendas other than a desire for power at the center, and without a strong national party to provide clear direction, could easily lead to stasis on foreign and international economic issues—the issues that matter the least to voters domestically. (This could also be an outcome of a coalition formed by one national party with limited seats and a weak hand to steer the coalition on policy disagreement). A coalition government formed by the support of many parties without a strong and coherent commitment to India’s global partnerships, or rather more likely, a coalition with so much internal disagreement about what choices India should be making, could create policy stasis for anything slightly controversial. Uncertainty over India’s directions, and India’s interests internationally should domestic priorities be front and center, could leave Washington and India’s international partners hanging.