Last week, the attention of the political world was gripped by the midterm elections in the United States, where exceptionally high voter turnout and a resurgence of political interest amid the presidency of Donald Trump led to the Democratic Party regaining control of the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, an altogether different election was held elsewhere, a special election for certain seats of a state legislature and a national lower house. Generally a less grand affair than the American midterms, but one that could have immense significance for the world’s largest election: India, May 2019. In the wealthy southern state of Karnataka, home to India’s technology hub, Bangalore, five seats were up for election: three in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, and two in the state legislature. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) retained only one of them, the Lok Sabha seat of Shivamogga, while the other four were seized by India’s second-largest party, Rahul Gandhi’s Indian National Congress (Congress), and a local Congress-allied party, the Janata Dal Secular (JDS). The two parties have been testing out an alliance in recent months.
Almost 280 million people voted in the previous general election, held in 2014, that brought the National Democratic Alliance, led by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to power. In that election, the BJP gained an immense mandate, whereas the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, suffered a historic defeat, a routing so complete that it did not even reach the threshold necessary to qualify as the official opposition party. That position remains unfilled.
There is reason, however, to believe the tide is turning against the BJP. Dissatisfied with a sluggish economy and a government policy increasingly based on religious symbolism, voters seem to be drifting towards alternatives. The Congress-JDS victory in Karnataka this week is indicative of a larger trend: anti-BJP alliances, as Congress seeks to unify the opposition and lead a campaign to unseat the BJP or at the very least reduce their majority, the size of which allows them to dominate legislation. Mr. Gandhi and his state party bosses have been traversing the country extensively in the past few months as they seek to forge partnerships to fight the BJP across India. They have suffered setbacks, notably a rebuke from Mamata Banerjee, an influential West Bengal leader who heads the Trinamool Congress party. In general, though, there are promising signs. Special elections have seen Congress or Congress-allied candidates flip BJP-held seats across the country, and victory is expected in the large northern state of Rajasthan next month. Again, it is not all positive for the Congress: the BJP has consolidated their majority in the Rajya Sabha, the upper parliamentary house, as well as in key state legislatures. But the party will hope that its efforts to convince leaders in India’s multiparty system will pay off and lead to an across- the-board anti-BJP force by the time India votes in April and May.
Congress has its own immense issues to deal with, ranging from factional infighting to shedding the corruption-tainted image which led to its thrashing in 2014. But before 2019, it is the special elections and the state elections that show us where the vox populi, and the path of the country, is heading. Attention is advised.