Joshua Tucker: Continuing our series of Monkey Cage Election Reports, the following is a guest post from political scientists Adnan Naseemullah (Johns Hopkins University) and Gilles Verniers (Ashoka University).


As the dust clears from the 2014 Indian election, Narendra Modi is Prime Minister and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the largest party in the Lower House of Parliament. These election results, coming after ten years of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule and more than two decades of disparate coalitions, are seen by many as unprecedented. But a precedent does exist, if an unlikely one. The 2013 National Assembly elections in Pakistan bore remarkably similar results to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in India. By viewing the recent Indian polls through the lens of the Pakistani experience, trends emerge that place the democratic process of both countries in greater context. These include anti-incumbency, the building of majorities of seats on concentrated minorities of votes, middle class and ethnic majoritarian aspirations, and the strength of regional parties.

The Pakistani elections of April 2013 were remarkable for two different reasons. First, for the first time in its history, power changed hands through an election without authoritarian intervention. But second, it represented a major swing in the configuration of party power in the parliament. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) emerged as the largest party, winning just short of a majority of seats with 32 percent of the votes, with the rest of the parliament fragmented between the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). This marked a significant shift from 2008, when the PPP won a plurality of seats and formed a broad coalition with four other parties.

This swing was mirrored in India’s 2014 elections, during which the BJP won a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha with 31 percent of the votes, and the rest were fragmented between the Congress and regional parties. In 2009, the Congress obtained a majority of seats but through a large coalition. In 2014, The BJP retains some coalition partners in 2014 but these are unnecessary to its majority.

In both Pakistan and India, then, we see a shift from coalition governments led by center-left politicians to majoritarian (or close to majoritarian) governments of the center-right. We argue that this is evidence of broader political dynamics shared in common between the two countries. Why?

The Losers and Anti-Incumbency

First, consider the losers. Both the Congress and the PPP are large, ideologically diverse but broadly left-of-center parties with political dynasties– the Nehru-Gandhi and the Bhutto-Zardari families respectively – at their core. Commentators in India and Pakistan have blamed dynastic politics for their downfall, arguing that the political domination of parties by families has resulted in favoritism and corruption. These two governments were led by technocrats, like Manmohan Singh, or powerful regional leaders, such as  Yousaf Raza Gillani and Pervaiz Ashraf – rather than by dynasts themselves. And in both cases, these family-led parties were able to form coalitions.

A second purported reason for the PPP’s and Congress’ disaster at the polls is the broadness of their coalitions, which requires the interests and resource requirements of many different factions and parties to be balanced. Some have argued that this led to incoherent policymaking and weak implementation. But coalition government, as Irfan Nooruddin contends, can lead to greater policy stability because more constituencies take part in collective decision-making. In both cases, however, the electorate votes for parties and not for coalitions.

Rather, Congress and the PPP could simply be considered victims of anti-incumbency. The PPP coalition government since 2008 and the Congress coalition government since 2009 presided over economic hard times, as the effects of the credit crisis and the Great Recession rippled through the world economy. In India, inflation and a huge trade deficit coincided with an explosion of corporate debt, all of which contributed to a sense of economic stagnation. In Pakistan, economic decline (though not exactly crisis) overshadowed most of the years in which the PPP coalition was in power. Given this context, it is not at all surprising that support for the PPP and the Congress would have decreased, and voters would seek a change.

The Winners, Economic Aspiration and Ethnic Majoritarian Assertion

The PML-N and the BJP under Narendra Modi were well placed to take advantage of anti-incumbency stemming from economic stagnation. Nawaz Sharif rose to prominence in Pakistani politics as an industrialist, and the PML-N has long been associated with an affinity to business interests. Modi, also known for his proximity to industrialists, has campaigned on the economic performance of Gujarat under his tenure as chief minister. Both have led highly personalized electoral campaigns and have projected themselves as providential leaders, relegating their party to the backdrop.

As Adam Ziegfeld has argued, the resounding success of the BJP is partly a consequence of ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral rules, which magnify changes in votes to changes in seats for winning parties, particularly when support for other parties is fragmented. The PML-N has also benefitted from the same dynamic. But the success of both Modi and Nawaz Sharif has two additional sources. The first is the politics of economic aspiration. As Jaffrelot has noted, the campaign messages of the BJP are tied to promises of bringing economic success to the aspiring lower middle classes: shopkeepers, land owning farmers, clerks and petty bureaucrats. The PML-N’s election discourses were largely similar, and rely on the same social bases for economic support. Both also benefit from massive elite support in their strongholds.

As importantly, a second root of electoral success is the politics of ethnic assertion. The BJP’s victory is largely due to success in the Hindi-speaking heartland of Northern and Central India, as well as the affluent western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra (the latter through the BJP’s ally the Shiv Sena). The failure of the Congress party in these states stems in part from the sense that the Indian government had neglected the interests of upper and middle-caste Hindi speakers, framed as a majoritarian ethnic group. In Pakistan, the PML-N’s victory was largely due to resounding successes in northern and central Punjab, the demographic center of the country.  76 percent of the PML-N’s votes and 119 out of its 129 seats came from Punjab, whereas the BJP won 213 seats out of its 282-seat majority and 68 percent of its votes from the Hindi Belt and its stronghold of Gujarat.

There is a dark underside to this ethnic assertion. The BJP under Narendra Modi is closely allied with Hindu nationalist organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) that have been implicated in threats against minority groups such as Muslims. Nawaz Sharif’s party has tolerated Sunni groups in Punjab that have participated in anti-Shi’a violence in the country. The activist bases of both parties, grounded as they are in ethnic and religious exclusion, act to reinforce a relatively narrow clientele.

The Power of Regional Groups

Of course, the regional concentration of the BJP’s power in northern and central India and the PML-N’s in Northern and Central Punjab has meant that regional parties are still powerful in other areas of both countries. Jayalalithaa’s Tamil regionalist party AIADMK is currently the third largest party in parliament, and other regional parties such as the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa and the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal have significant representation within their states. In Pakistan, the PPP is essentially a party concentrated in rural Sindh, whereas Karachi is under the control of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). Imran Khan’s PTI, an anti-corruption third party that was largely unsuccessful in challenging the PML-N and the MQM in Punjab and urban Sindh has become, in effect, a regional party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, after voters abandoned the Pakhtun nationalist Awami Nationalist Party. Thus, we see that in India, the BJP’s mandate is weak beyond northern and central India and the PML-N’s support limited to the northern half of Punjab province.

The assertion of a majoritarian center and the resilience of strong but fragmented regional oppositions set up a volatile and contentious politics for the next few years. Narendra Modi’s leadership within the party has been one of intense centralization, and Nawaz Sharif has been known for an individualist and authoritarian governing style. Both Modi and Nawaz have formed small and compact cabinets, reflecting a determination to restrain powerful and independent regional leaders.  Yet, an authoritarian style, while popular for the base, is likely to be challenged by regional counter-assertion. The elections of 2013 and 2014 have set up dynamics that may threaten development and effective governance for the next half-decade.

[Note: The Indian elections figure has been updated to reflect a correction from the original post.]


Additional Monkey Cage Election Reports are available here.