The 2019 Indian general election and its effects on foreign policy

India, the world’s largest democracy is again preparing for a general election to be held in April and May, following the overwhelming victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014. Although one year ago, the re-election of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party, the BJP was deemed to be certain, the largest opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC) seems to be recovering in light of its performance in December 2018. Apropos of this, we are going to describe the characteristics of Indian elections, present the two largest parties and their financial situations, and then, after assessing Modi’s chances, we will try to identify the election’s effects on India’s foreign policy, addressing the question as to which direction India, the emerging major power will be heading.

Although Indian elections are usually dominated by issues of domestic policy, the challenges, primarily posed by China and Pakistan, can be major influencing factors,[1] as demonstrated by the developments in early 2019. Modi’s energetic and charismatic actions play an important role in his perception, but the mixed reception of the nationalist ideology of the majority can also be a decisive factor.[2]

The Modi government has launched spectacular programmes and a series of measures, whose domestic perception may be decisive in the outcome of the elections. These included the development of rural electricity infrastructure, the support for setting up small businesses, and the “Make in India” initiative, which aims to boost the domestic processing industry.[3] The government has introduced comprehensive measures to set rules for the informal economy, targeting tax avoidance and legalising the grey economy. These measures, including demonetisation, that is the withdrawal of 85% of cash in circulation, however, had negative economic implications in the short term. Among Modi’s other notable reforms were the so-called GST (Goods and Services Tax), which aimed to simplify the different and complex tax regimes in states, and the Aadhaar programme, which has provided hundreds of millions of people with unique identity numbers and has allowed 312 million new bank accounts to be opened.[4]

Although India’s development over the past decades is not outstanding, gradual reforms and welfare measures have resulted in steady growth and the reduction of poverty in the past 40 years. While in the ‘80s, non-agricultural public enterprises accounted for one-third of the gross domestic product, this has decreased to 14% by now – the slow rate of economic liberalisation starting in the early ‘90s can be explained by the warning example of Yeltsin’s Russia. This liberalisation process, which is implemented in steps and, in a sense, still ongoing today, is reflected in trade as well: while analysts estimated the country’s trade openness to be 15% in the ‘80s, it stands at 41% today. The necessity of welfare services and benefits are not disputed, the main problem has rather been their ineffectiveness. However, there has been much improvement in this regard as well, with the growing tax base playing a decisive role.[5]

Characteristics of Indian elections

Elections in the world’s largest democracy is worth illustrating with some figures: the total number of eligible voters is around 900 million (five years ago, 550 million out of 830 million voters went to the polls), who will decide the fate of 545 seats in the lower house of parliament in one million polling stations, managed by ten million election officials. In the 2014 general election, 8251 candidates of 464 parties participated in the contest, and finally 282 seats were secured by the winning BJP.[6]

A unique feature of Indian domestic politics is the states’ linguistic, caste, and ethnic diversity, which provides a strong base for many regional parties. Although Modi successfully faced this challenge in 2014, the recent unity of the opposition decreases the chances of another overwhelming victory. The declining popularity of the Congress Party from the ‘70s has significantly contributed to Modi’s rising to power:[7] Hindus belonging to the upper castes have become less and less satisfied with the policy of the Congress to support Muslims, the pre-defined quotas – which are also provided for in the Constitution –, and the social welfare measures focusing also on the lower castes (as today the division by castes does not necessarily reflect the financial status of individuals).[8]

One of the decisive areas of Indian elections are territories beyond such major cities as New Delhi, Mumbai, or Kolkata, (mofussils), where two-thirds of the country’s population live. It is difficult to predict the decision of many voters living in these areas as they often do not experience dramatic changes in their circumstances even during major economic upswings. Therefore, as it is also typical of government parties, the BJP tries to gain the loyalty of these voters through various welfare measures.[9] To do so, government parties traditionally have much larger financial assets, however, it is worth noting that the final outcome is not necessarily determined by the size of the campaign budget.[10] While the Congress promises a secular and diverse nation in its rhetoric, the BJP’s communication builds on Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim feelings, to a lesser extent.[11] The latter is particularly welcomed in Uttar Pradesh and among the Hindi speaking majority living in the northern states around it, but it is less effective in the south. Nevertheless, it can be stated that voters often turn against the governing party during elections, being in a more difficult situation due to the fragmented party system and the chronically bad economic management of Indian governments.[12] Another issue of Indian elections is the strong community identity: candidates have to meet complex expectations due to the many languages, religions, and sub-castes; each of the 29 states pose a unique challenge to the participating parties and potential party groups.[13] It is difficult to predict the results of elections also because public opinion polls – which require much labour force coupled with high costs and whose objectivity is often questionable – are infamously unreliable.[14]


The main opponent of the BJP, the Indian National Congress won only 44 seats in 2014, as opposed to the previous 206 seats. Although the Congress had led only three states by mid-2018, it won in the by-elections held at the end of the year in three states, namely Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh, which caused public surprise. This was likely due to the dissatisfaction of the population in the countryside because of rising raw material prices, the lack of the promised increase of wages – likely caused partly by the GST and demonetisation –, the declining popularity of the BJP among the Dalit caste and tribal people, who make up nearly one-fourth of India’s population, and the emerging cooperation between opposition groups.[15] The election results of December 2018 have given a new momentum to the Congress and Gandhi. Rahul was successfully portrayed by the BJP as too young, naive and the inexperienced heir of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty during the election campaign five years ago, however, Rahul has since taken over the leading of the party from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, and as a talented networker, become a more prospective competitor than in 2014. Furthermore, it might be easier for the Congress as an opposition party to take up a critical role, focusing primarily on the problems of farmers, promising to increase crop prices, decrease electricity prices, and cancel the debts of farmers (which can be achieved easier than the reform of the agriculture market).[16]

Costly elections

A recent development this year might have a positive effect on the financial difficulties and winning chances of the Congress: Rajiv Gandhi’s daughter and Rahul’s older sister, Priyanka Gandhi has become one of the senior leaders of the Congress. On the one hand, she is considered more charismatic and a more talented politician than her brother, on the other hand, she “replaces” part of the political capital during the increasingly expensive Indian campaigns[17] as her presence guarantees full media coverage at any event and her popularity in social media is also a match for that of the governing party. Nevertheless, her role is currently limited to the election campaign so it is not certain that she will participate in the elections as a candidate.

The financial situation of the governing party is hardly comparable to that of the other parties: it has significantly increased its available funds during the past five years; the parties governing in the states are regularly supported by companies and entrepreneurs in return for favours. In India, parties are required to account for each donation worth more than USD 280, based on which the BJP has received 12 times more than all the other parties combined. In addition to this, the BJP has introduced another source of financing campaigns, namely electoral bonds. Corporate and private actors can use them to anonymously support their preferred parties (often more than one, preparing for a potentially unfavourable result). The lion’s share of the electoral bonds worth USD 148 mn in total, increases the BJP’s budget. Unknown sources say that the governing party has received four times more support through these bonds and other smaller donations than all the other national parties.

Modi’s election prospects

The main causes of the decline in the Modi government’s popularity will be decisive during the elections: the currency demonetisation, the rushed introduction of the GST, the rise of fuel prices, the price decline of agricultural products as well as the high number of unemployed young people who hold Modi to his unfulfilled promises about creating jobs. The BJP responds to these challenges by introducing welfare measures, relinquishing the careful fiscal policy, and launching more spectacular anti-corruption campaigns.[18] However, one of the features of Indian domestic politics, namely the fact that representatives in office are removed more often than re-elected, can have a negative effect on the dominant BJP during the upcoming elections. Furthermore, the fact that the party received two-thirds of its seats from just eight states is another weakness, which may be further deteriorated if the coalition partners decide to choose another side. Overall, despite all these criteria and challenges Modi is indisputably India’s most popular leader, who still stands the most chance as a candidate for prime minister in the upcoming elections.[19]

Effects of the elections on foreign policy

After the election, the foreign policy of the next Indian government will face numerous changes, including the following: if the US chooses to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, the weight of India’s role can further increase in the country; India must deal with the more and more intense American-Russian-Chinese rivalry; it must expect new situations and challenges depending on the region’s election results; its cooperation with the United Kingdom could further deepen as a result of Brexit; the threat of cross-border terrorism will be still present; it must address growing Chinese presence in South Asia; and the outcome of the currently ongoing US trade negotiations can also be decisive in the future.[20]

Nevertheless, we can conclude that the Indian foreign policy will be dominated by the usual factors, and there is not much difference in the foreign policy of the BJP and the Congress. As demonstrated by Modi’s first five years, Indian foreign policy continues to project continuity, aiming to maintain good relations with every significant country, striving to achieve major power status[21]: incidents such as the more assertive action in 2017 on the Doklam plateau and the Balakot airstrike can thus be interpreted not as the emergence of a new “Modi Doctrine” but rather as the natural consequence of the Indian goal to secure the status of a major power (however, in the case of the latter incident, one must not disregard the upcoming elections and domestic political considerations, either). Therefore, in this respect, the elections will have only minor implications for India’s foreign policy. The main question is whether Modi will lose his large majority in the Lok Sabha and if he does and either a weaker BJP, or a broad coalition led by the Congress comes to power, how much will the more divided government and legislation threaten India’s foreign policy aspirations.[22]

Photo sources

Cover photo:
Shutterstock: Ballot box painted into national flag colors – India – Photo. URL: (Accessed: 18 Mar. 2019)


Author: Ádám Róma


[1] CHELLANEY, Brahma: Awkward hole in India’s election debate – foreign policy. In: Nikkei Asia Review, 14 Feb. 2019. URL: (Accessed: 18 Mar. 2019.)

[2] Jári, Ferenc: A Módí-kormány négy éve (Four years of the Modi government). In: Baranyi, Tamás (szerk.) Fókuszban: India – Az ébredő nagyhatalom. Antall József Tudásközpont, 2018/4. Budapest, 2019. p. 31.

[3] Jári, 2019. p. 28.

[4] Ibid., p. 29.

[5] Thiruvadanthai, Srinivas: Narendra Modi Is No Populist. In: Foreign Policy, 20 Sept. 2018. URL: (Accessed: 18 Mar. 2019.)

[6] Suri, Manveena and Gupta, Swati: The land of a million polling stations: India’s general election by the numbers. In: CNN, 11 Mar. 2019. URL: (Accessed: 18 Mar. 2019)

[7] Sharma, Ruchir: No Country for Strongmen – How India’s Democracy Constrains Modi. Foreign Affairs, 98/2, pp. 96–106. Council on Foreign Relations, March/April 2019. p. 97.

[8] Sharma, 2019. p. 98.

[9] Ibid., p. 102.

[10] Ibid., p. 103.

[11] Ibid., p. 98.

[12] Ibid., p. 100.

[13] Ibid., p. 104.

[14] Hill, Jonah Force: In India’s National Elections, Don’t Trust the Polls. In: The Diplomat, 24 Feb. 2014. URL: (Accessed: 18 Mar. 2019)

[15] Vaishnav, Milan: India’s Congress Party Rises from the Dead. In: Foreign Policy, 14 Dec. 2018. URL: (Accessed: 18 Mar. 2019)

[16] Singh, Shubha: Modi has a battle ahead in 2019. In: Nikkei Asia Review, 26 Dec. 2018. URL: (Accessed: 18 Mar. 2019)

[17] In 2014, the BJP raised USD 82 mn and spent 100 mn on the campaign, while the Congress received 49 mn and invested 68 mn in the campaign.

[18] Singh, Shubha: Modi has a battle ahead in 2019. In: Nikkei Asia Review, 26 Dec. 2018. URL: (Accessed: 18 Mar. 2019)

[19] Vaishnav 2019.

[20] Mohan, Geeta: How India strengthened foreign relations in 2018, expectations for 2019. In: India Today, 29 Dec. 2018. URL: (Accessed: 18 Mar. 2019)

[21] Tourangbam, Monish: Looking Ahead to 2019: The Great Indian Balancing Act. In: South Asian Voices, 26 Dec. 2018. URL: (Accessed: 18 Mar. 2019)

[22] Chellaney, 2019.

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