Thursday saw the results of general elections for 543 seats of the 17th lower house of India’s national parliament re-enforcing the exit poll predictions that had set television screens on fire since Monday morning.
For the first time in India’s history, an incumbent prime minister has been re-elected with a much larger majority in the national parliament. The ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has not just crossed the magic number of 300 seats, it has finally become a “national” party by winning a large number of seats in several provinces where it did not have a presence before. Indeed, the entire process had become a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s persona and he has emerged as an uncontested “national” leader.
This Modi-fication of democratic India saw the ruling National Democratic Alliance win 350 seats of the total 543 seats; an impressive 64% of the total seats. For the first time in India’s history, a political party has received 49% of the total votes cast. Modi only needed 272 seats to stake a claim to form the government. The United Progress Alliance led by the Congress Party has only slightly improved its numbers, winning 90 seats while several other regional political parties have also shrunk numerically. Like last time, the Congress Party does not qualify to be designated as the official opposition, for which it must have at least 10% of all seats.
Congress Party president Rahul Gandhi lost his traditional family bastion Amethi to a relatively junior and younger ruling party leader, though he has won from his second seat in Kerala in south India. This is because, like in the case of presidential elections, Indian voters voted this time in the name of Modi and not for candidates’ contested elections. Surprises also included a regional party in south India, YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh, opening an account by becoming the third-largest party in parliament.
To underline the magnitude of the elections it has already become a global exemplar in several dimensions. First, these elections were undertaken in seven phases over six weeks from April 11 until May 19, with the results declared on Thursday. Though earlier general elections have also taken a similar time span, this was the fastest counting of votes ever.
Second, these involved about 900 million voters of which over 600 million actually cast their vote at over one million polling stations, making India the world’s largest democratic experiment.
For the first time in India’s history, a political party has received 49% of the total votes cast. Modi only needed 272 seats to stake a claim to form the government
Third, the elections marked the highest vote turnover, with 67.10% of voters casting their votes. These included about 85 million first-time voters, which saw the use of social media becoming the most powerful tool ever. Modi himself has over 50 million followers on social media, making him the most followed world leader.
Fourth, along with the national elections, provincial polls were also held for 534 seats in India’s four provinces, namely Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, and Sikkim. It was interesting to note that voters showed a clear distinction in their preference in voting for regional and national elections. Three major provinces where the Congress Party had recently won legislative elections to form provincial governments saw a clean sweep for the ruling alliance.
The elections were also significant for the transparency, accuracy and efficiency of the world’s largest election apparatus. Conducting the elections involved nearly 4 million electronic voting machines (EVMs) and an additional 1.7 million voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) machines for creating records to ensure accuracy and fair play. All these machines were transported and stored under high-security conditions that involved over 1.1 million election personal deployed at polling stations and an equal number of police personnel to guard the assets and ensure law and order as vicious and vitriolic election campaigns raised tempers.
This involved setting up polling stations in difficult desert areas, disturbed areas, tropical forests (including the world’s highest polling station being set up at 4,500 meters above sea level in Tashigang in Himachal Pradesh in north India). Another polling station required election personal to travel over 55 kilometers on forest tracks in the remote Gir National Forest in Gujarat province in western India, a place where Asiatic lions outnumber humans, so that the sole resident could exercise his right to vote. This election also saw communications and perception management becoming the main focus, marginalizing debate on serious issues.
All this speaks volumes about the rising political consciousness and interest among India’s voters, as well as the maturity and robustness of the country’s democracy and its institutions. India is seen as an exemplar of thriving democracy where even the most powerful leaders have vowed to respect the electorate’s verdict.
The Modi-fication of the world’s largest elections has not only enhanced India’s stature and credibility among the comity of nations but also raised the stature of Prime Minister Modi in the eyes of world leaders. In May 2014, prime minister-designate Modi invited all the South Asian national leaders for his swearing-in ceremony, marking the beginning of his hyperactive foreign policy.
The second swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Modi may again see all of South Asia’s leaders traveling to New Delhi. Otherwise, the first multilateral meeting of his second term is set to be the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Bishkek summit on June 13-14, where he will be meeting the national leaders of eight member nations (including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, and Pakistan’s Imran Khan) as well as leaders from several dialogue partners including President Maithripala Sirisena of Sri Lanka.
Terrorism, which was the central issue in Modi’s election campaign and was in the headlines following the Easter suicide bombing in Sri Lanka last month, remains the primary concern of the SCO. This might see Modi redoubling his continuing efforts at building a global consensus on countering international terrorism.