Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | May 18, 2014

The Indian General Election, 2014

Indische Parlamentswahl 2014 Parteien

Voting ended Monday in the 2014 general election for seats in the Indian parliament. The Election Commission of India declared results on Friday.

In short: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, won a landslide victory, and the governing National Congress Party suffered an historic defeat: “The result was the worst in history for the governing Indian National Congress party – the movement that won India’s independence from the British in 1947 and has ruled India for most of the years since – and a humiliating rejection for Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi, who was the party’s candidate for prime minister.”

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the coalition of which Modi’s BJP is the leading party, won 336 of the 545 seats in the Lok Sabha (the lower and more powerful chamber of India’s parliament). Indeed, the BJP alone (represented by orange on the above map) won 282 seats — meaning that, barring defections by over a dozen sitting BJP members, the BJP can continue to command a majority vote in the Lok Sabha just from the votes of its own members. (I believe this is the first time that this has been the case for the BJP — or for any Indian political party other than the Congress.) Therefore, barring those defections and a rupture with all of its NDA coalition partners, the new government should have no need to call early elections. It is almost certain, therefore, that Modi will be able to stay in office for a full five-year term (the maximum time between general elections under Indian law).

The NDA majority, according to Tunku Varadarajan, makes it “possible for Modi to enact virtually any law, program or policy he wishes to, given that the Congress Party, which has headed a ruling alliance in parliament since 2004, has been nuked by the Indian voters, nuked so devastatingly, in fact, that it has been reduced from 206 seats to 45—a charred rump that represents its lowest tally of seats in Indian parliamentary history. Its allies have fared little better, and even with them accounted for, a Congress-led alliance barely limps to 60 seats.”

(For an analysis that is more pessimistic about the chances for Modi’s agenda, see this piece by Ellen Barry in the New York Times.)

Modi was previously denied a visa to visit the United States because of accusations by human rights groups that he deliberately chose not to act to halt violence against Muslims during the Gujarat riots of 2002. (The White House and the State Department have indicated that the US will extend a visa and an invitation to Modi once he is formally installed as PM. I suppose I should mention that “a Supreme Court-appointed panel found no evidence he gave orders that prevented assistance from reaching those being attacked.” So, technically, he was exonerated. I blogged about Modi earlier, discussing a review of Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay’s biography of Modi.)

Narendra Modi, the next Prime Minister of India.

For those of us in the US, looking for a framework or analogy to understand these results: this is a worse defeat for the India’s National Congress Party than the defeat the Democrats suffered in the 1994 congressional elections.

Also, my impression (as a confessed non-expert, from thousands of miles away) is that Narendra Modi is considerably more right-wing and more of a Hindu nationalist than Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the previous BJP prime minister, who was PM from 1998 to 2004.

Expect a right-ward turn in Indian policy. If I were a Muslim living in India, I might be nervous right now.

Meanwhile, the National Congress Party may want to think about new leadership.

Now, it is possible to interpret these results as indicating something other than mass endorsement for Modi and the most hard-line elements of the BJP. Writing in Britain’s Telegraph, MJ Akbar (a former press secretary to the late Congress PM Rajiv Gandhi; now a spokesman for the BJP) says that the election results reflect a reaction against the Gandhi family and the nepotism, corruption, and poor management of the Congress Party. In the Guardian, Jayati Ghosh has a piece entitled “Narendra Modi and the BJP bludgeoned their way to election victory.”

And, fwiw, Adam Ziegfeld at the Monkey Cage argues that this election is not as historic as it seems on first viewing (emphasis added):

Although this is the first national election in which the BJP has ever won more votes than any other party, less than a third of Indians voted for it. The BJP’s legislative majority is largely a function of India’s single-member district (SMD) electoral system, the same system used in American, British, and Canadian legislative elections. In an SMD system, votes rarely translate proportionally into seats. This system rewards parties that are the largest in each electoral district. The BJP’s vote is patchily distributed across India, which works to its advantage. In a number of states where it is disproportionately strong, the BJP was, in district after district, the largest party, even if not always by a very large margin. For example, in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, the BJP won about 42 percent of the vote. However, it is likely to win 71 of Uttar Pradesh’s 80 seats (almost 90 percent) because the remaining 58 percent of the vote was split across a number of different parties.

Meanwhile, in states where the BJP won few seats, it did quite poorly. Thus, relatively few of the BJP’s votes were wasted—that is, cast in electoral districts where the party ultimately failed to win a legislative seat. As a result, the party won a legislative majority on a fairly small vote share. Previously, no party had won a legislative majority with less than 40 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Congress suffered an ignominious defeat in part because its vote was fairly evenly distributed across the country. Coming in second or third place across many electoral districts brings no electoral reward. In this election, Congress looks a lot like the Liberal Democrats in Britain—a party that typically wins respectable vote shares in lots of districts but fails to win many seats.

For the record, India had about 66% voter turnout this election, and some 537 million people voted.

See also this humorous post (in which Narendra Modi is compared to Tywin Lannister, and so on).

Image Credits: (1) Map of election results from Wikimedia Commons, based on data from the Election Commission of India. Used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
(2) Narendra Modi addressing a rally, April 2014. Used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license. Source: Narendra Modi Flickr page.



  1. Definitely a heavy helping of “voting against” rather than “for,” but it’s too big a majority for the BJP to care. Hindu fundamentalism in India, Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, Christian fundamentalism in America …

    (Just saw the disclaimer in sidebar btw – love it!)

  2. Nice post, and I think the points made in the quote from the Monkey Cage post are esp. important.

  3. P.s. also note typo “Gujarat riots of 2012” s/b 2002.

  4. Even if the BJP doesn’t “really” have a mandate, as the Bush team said back in 2000, they’ll govern as if they have a mandate — and Modi strikes me, on certain axes, as being even Bushier than Bush. (Again: non-expert opinion.)

    • I agree they’ll govern as if they have a mandate.
      On Modi himself, I don’t really know enough to say and I didn’t follow the campaign closely. The little I do know about him is not v. encouraging. However, on the specific issue of attitudes towards the large Muslim minority, my guess would be that he will try to restrain the elements of his party that are overtly anti-Muslim — while tossing them enough rhetoric to keep them happy. Rhetoric yes, action no — b.c, among other things, foreign investors don’t like communal tensions (and poss. violence), so it’s in his interest not to stir the tensions up more than they are now. He is PM of the whole country now, not leader of just one state. But as I say, pure guesses on my part.

    • Good points. I had not considered the foreign investment angle. Modi isn’t stupid; he won’t want to scare off firms that are thinking of coming into India.

  5. p.s. And something I heard in passing suggested that his ec. record in Gujarat was sufficiently good in recent yrs (at least for those in a position to benefit) that some (not all) Muslims were willing to overlook/forgive his role in ’02. Not sure whether that will generalize to the whole country. (It’s so big that prob. virtually nothing generalizes to the whole country.)

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