Over the past two weeks, five of India's states have gone to the polls. Held less than six months ahead of general elections, due by the end of May next year, this round of assembly elections arguably provides an indication of the forces that will shape elections at the national level.
The centre-left Indian National Congress Party, which has ruled India for the majority of its post-independence history, was decisively defeated in Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Congress won 34 of 40 seats in Mizoram, though the Hindu-nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did not contest elections in that state.
The most dramatic result was in Delhi, where the Congress Party won a mere 8 of 70 seats against the BJP's 31. Held by Congress for the past 15 years, the loss of the national capital, in which it previously held 43 seats, is a crushing defeat.
The impressive performance of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), winning 28 seats and unseating three-time Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, is particularly notable. Formed out of anti-corruption protests just over a year ago, this is the first election the AAP has contested, and its performance in Delhi could point to further success on the national stage.
But neither the BJP nor AAP hold a majority required to form government in Delhi, and we can expect the announcement of a coalition arrangement involving the Congress or other smaller players in coming days.
The correlation between performance in state and general elections in India is not always direct, especially as the BJP has traditionally been strong in all of these five states. No single party has won a majority in the federal parliament since 1989, and due to the complexity of coalition building in India, it is difficult to predict exactly how state election results will affect the outcome in 2014. However it is still possible to draw broad conclusions from these recent results.
These results don't bode well for Congress' prospects in 2014, and point to a clear dissatisfaction with the federal government. Between corruption scandals, slowing economic growth and perceived weakness on foreign policy, it is unsurprising that voters are disappointed. Should Congress declare Rahul Gandhi, the inexperienced scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, as its prime ministerial candidate, it won't help the party to dispel perceptions of uncertainty and weakness. The BJP's choice of decisive, yet controversial, Hindu-nationalist Narendra Modi (pictured above), presents an alternative to the status quo.
Fortunately, this disappointment in the government hasn't led to wholesale rejection of the political system.
In fact, quite the opposite; the results represent a vote of confidence in Indian democracy, and the ability to achieve change through democratic means. These state elections witnessed record voter turnouts and the 'none of the above' option available to voters for the first time registered an extremely low response — less than 1% in Delhi.
But the AAP's success in Delhi does point to the potential rise of a third-front in Indian politics. The AAP's platform of transparency and accountability has resonated particularly strongly with the middle class, youth and dissatisfied lower caste communities.
The Lowy Institute's India Poll shows that corruption is a significant concern for Indian voters, and places the onus for action squarely upon its political leadership. 92% of Indians think the level of corruption has increased in the past five years, with 94% responding that there is currently 'a lot' of corruption in India. Importantly, 96% of Indians think corruption is holding India back, and 94% that reducing corruption should be a top priority for the Indian government.
Sonia Gandhi has called for 'deep introspection' after the state polls, seeking to rectify the Congress Party's mistakes ahead of general elections in 2014, while her son Rahul has pledged to transform the party to regain the confidence of the people.
In order for Congress to have a fighting chance in 2014, it will have to take these commitments seriously. It is increasingly evident that Congress needs to drastically rethink its strategy — moving away from populism and identity politics towards actual leadership on issues of concern to voters. However, with general elections just six months away, it might be too late to reverse the party's fortunes.
Photo by Flickr user narendramodiofficial.