By Riyaz ul Khaliq
India’s much-anticipated general elections are due by May, and a new government will be in office by early June.
The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is desperately seeking a second term while opposition parties are waging a united fight to “overthrow” what they call an “arrogant" regime.
To understand what will unfold in the run-up to the elections, Anadolu Agency’s Riyaz ul Khaliq interviews Michael Kugelman, Asia program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank.
Kugelman also has expertise in and writes about international development and security, U.S. foreign policy and Afghanistan.
Anadolu Agency (AA): Do you see it happening that the BJP led by Narendra Modi will polarize the voters, once again, and be the winner of the 2019 elections?
Michael Kugelman: It's notoriously difficult to predict the outcome of Indian elections. Modi's party remains the front runner, though both Modi and the BJP have become increasingly vulnerable in recent months. Some disappointing outcomes for the BJP in recent state elections along with continued poor economic performance coupled with an energized Congress party all mean that if the BJP is to be reelected, it will need to work very hard for it.
AA: Since most of Modi’s promises did not materialize, including creating 200 million jobs and depositing Rs 15 lakh ($21,150) into every citizen’s bank account, will he still be a favorite?
Kugelman: It's true that the economy, once seen as Modi's strength, has become a liability. While Modi remains a popular personality and the electorate is generally quite supportive of his foreign policies, particularly his tough position toward Pakistan, the economy is the weak spot for Modi. His party was swept into power in 2014 with a strong mandate to undertake much-needed economic reform. The consensus in India is that the BJP has not succeeded with economic reform. So if the BJP loses the election, it's the economy that will be its undoing.
AA: What will be major factors which will decide India’s general elections?
Kugelman: It will all come down to jobs. It's not just economic performance that has been a weakness for Modi, it's the fact that unemployment figures have continued to rise throughout his term. The fact that the government may have recently sought to prevent the release of a new report pointing to high unemployment figures will make the jobs issue an even bigger challenge for the BJP to overcome.
AA: Do you foresee any change in India's foreign policy with regard to Pakistan after the elections?
Kugelman: I do think the next Indian government, whether it's BJP again or the Congress Party, will take a softer position toward Pakistan, or at least initially try a softer position and see how that goes. The Modi government sought to engage with Islamabad soon after it took office, but it concluded that a conciliatory position wasn't going anywhere, and it has since decided not to opt for dialogue. In India, it is politically risky to reach out to Pakistan so close to elections. So any softer position from Delhi toward Islamabad will have to wait until after the election.
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AA: How do you see Priyanka Gandhi's role, first time formally, in Indian politics?
Kugelman: Gandhi's arrival on the scene is a potential game changer. She has a popular personality, perhaps more popular than her brother Rahul, and this could energize Congress at a time when it's already enjoying newfound momentum following its wins in several state elections.
Congress is taking a big risk with (Priyanka) Gandhi, as it is deploying her in Uttar Pradesh. In effect, Congress is rolling out one of its strongest assets in a very challenging electoral environment. Uttar Pradesh is one of India's biggest electoral prizes.
If she can channel her energizing impact into more momentum and getting more people to come out to vote for Congress, then she could be a big electoral factor.
AA: Besides voter polarization, we have witnessed the rise of fake news and yellow journalism favoring political parties in the country. What impact will it have?
Kugelman: Unfortunately, we live in an era when fake news, particularly when it's disseminated on social media, can carry the day in a big way in many places, and not just India. The BJP certainly benefited from a strong social media presence during the 2014 election that helped bring it victory.
Congress has had trouble matching the BJP's strong presence and impact on social media, but one way it may try to push back is to bring attention to the BJP's use of fake accounts and other nefarious tactics on social media.
AA: Congress was facing an incumbency factor in 2014 which gave an edge to the BJP. Now the BJP's popularity has also gone down. How do you see it?
Kugelman: The BJP enjoyed a long honeymoon period before the party started to become vulnerable, and particularly as the Indian public saw the party's promises of economic reform fail to materialize.
I still think the BJP is in a stronger position now than Congress was in 2014, and I imagine the BJP will get reelected. But it won't be easy, and it could well be overtaken by a resurgent Congress.
AA: Is it true that Pakistan and Kashmir are used by Indian national parties to gather votes?
Kugelman: It's true that in India, bashing Pakistan on the campaign trail makes for good politics. The BJP has done this before, and it will do this again.
Kashmir is a very delicate and divisive issue, so we won't hear as much about that -- and especially not from the BJP, which has struggled to manage rising anger and unrest in that region.