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The campaign for the 2019 Indian General Election (Lok Sabha) gets underway on 11 April, with votes to be counted on 23 May and results declared on the same day.

Narendra Modi, representing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been Prime Minister since 2014, but he faces opposition from Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress (INC).

Despite Modi’s attempts to position India as a global superpower––entering the Space Race; building new airports; and constructing the Mumbai-Ahmedebad High-Speed Corridor rail line––the outcome of the election is more likely to hinge on the Indian public’s perception of how successful Modi’s government has been regarding a number of key domestic issues, which more closely affect the daily lives of the electorate:

Jobs

As India works towards becoming an economic superpower, with ambitions to be the world’s 3rd largest economy by 2030, Modi pledged to raise the contribution of the manufacturing sector to 25% of GDP by 2025 through the Make in India campaign.  Although, economic growth in India has seen rises, which would make any European country jealous, the 25% figure appears unrealistic, with a corresponding hit on the promised jobs that would have accompanied it.

Indeed, recently released figures reveal India’s unemployment rate is the worst it has been in over 2 years, with a decline of 18.3 million workers since September 2016.

Access to secure jobs remains a key election battleground.

Women’s security

Gender-based violence is an emotive issue in Indian politics, and a subject upon which Modi and Gandhi have often clashed.  Gandhi claims that Modi’s government has been ineffectual at tackling attacks against women, whilst Modi cites a greater number of female police officers and an increase in the number of victims coming forward to report crimes as success stories for his policies.  However, while more women are coming forward to report cases of gender-based violence, the conviction rate remains largely unchanged. 

Disposable income 

The rate of inflation in India is the lowest it has been for over a decade.  The falling price of oil has been the largest contributor to the low rate of inflation, whilst the decline in food prices has also been a contributing factor.

Good news for some, not for others.  The decline in food prices has hit farmers in rural areas, who have traditionally struggled with high levels of debt.  The BJP and the INC have contrasting ideas on how this problem should be tackled, with the BJP promising to increase farmers’ incomes, whilst the INC favour loan-waiver proposals.

In an attempt to tackle financial inequality, Rahul Gandhi has promised to introduce a minimum income plan (Nyay) should the INC be elected.  The scheme would mean that the poorest 20% of Indian families would receive a benefit of 72,000 rupees per year.

Clean India

Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is a nationwide campaign aimed to clean up India’s cities, towns and villages.

The mission has resulted in a significant increase in the access to toilet facilities, although Modi’s goal to make India open defecation-free by October 2019 remains a distant dream.

Another strand of the Clean India campaign has been to introduce cleaner domestic fuels, particularly in rural areas, which still rely too heavily on polluting fires, particularly for cooking.  Modi’s Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana initiative has seen an estimated 60 million households switch to Liquified Petroleum Gas, but there are fears that the initiative may not be sustainable.

Clean India has also looked to reduce pollution in the River Ganges, but recent environmental studies report that the effort is underfunded and largely ineffective.  However, given the lofty ambitions of the Swaach Bharat project it is perhaps expecting too much to want immediate improvements.

Whether the Indian electorate are prepared to be equally patient will be a deciding factor in the result of the current election.

The rise of populist nationalism

Rochana Bajpai is Senior Lecturer in Politics at SOAS University of London and co-convenor of the MSc Asian Politics programme and the Government and Politics of Modern South Asia module.

Rochana comments:

“These are perhaps the most significant elections of independent India, with its future as a constitutional democracy at stake.  Current projections suggest that the Modi-led NDA alliance will be returned to power, albeit with a reduced majority for the BJP.  The BJP had been struggling recently on the economy, with a poor record on employment and rural distress aggravated by Modi’s demonetisation in 2018.  However, the party has managed to regain ground by shifting the campaign narrative to security issues after the Balakot airstrike, in retaliation for the Pulwama terrorist attack in which around 40 Indian paramilitary personnel were killed.   With the BJP’s campaign rhetoric stoking nationalist sentiment, projecting Modi as the strong-man able to give a robust reply to Pakistan, and Opposition leaders, as anti-national for demanding evidence for claims of the success of the Indian airstrikes, populist nationalism is once again on the rise in India, as elsewhere in the world today.”

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