India’s National Elections: Significance for Global Democracy and US Foreign Policy

For several weeks in April and May, Indians were at the polls to elect their new government. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dominated results, winning 282 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. After BJP’s victory, its leader, Narendra Modi, was sworn in as prime minister on May 26.

For most of its history, the Congress party has controlled India. The BJP’s dominance in the election signifies the desire for change among India’s people. Congress was viewed as corrupt with a weak foreign policy, unable to improve India’s economy.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the BJP achieved its victory on the strength of a campaign stressing a pro-business outlook and intolerance for corruption within the government. With a clear majority, the BJP party will be able to legislate toward these ends with relative ease.

What do these elections mean for global democracy?

  • The world’s second most populous country carried out a successful, democratic election.
    With a population of 1.2 billion people, India is by far the world’s largest democracy. Perhaps due to the country’s size, exceptional measures are utilized to ensure elections run smoothly: the Election Commission of India is granted de facto control of the country from the time the polls open until they close. During this time, the members of parliament as well as security forces are under their command. The result was an election that proceeded without violence or undue contention. In light of this success, other democratic, developing nations with dense populations can look to the Indian model to ensure a similar successful outcome when their citizens take to the polls.
  • India is a diverse country that has elected a party favoring Hindus to rule.
    There are concerns that Modi may have Hindu supremacist tendencies. A founding principle of the BJP party is Hindutva, the belief that India, as a Hindu nation, should be ruled by Hindus. Modi was also the chief minister of Gujarat state in 2002, a year in which anti-Muslim riots left more than 1,000 dead. India’s government investigated Modi’s failure to utilize security services to stop the violence, but he was never indicted. Before this investigation even took root, however, Modi was denied visas to the United States and the United Kingdom because of his failure to act. (Since being elected he has received invitations to visit from the heads of state of both countries).

What does it mean for U.S. foreign policy?

  • U.S. foreign direct investment in India may increase.
    The business community in the United States is pleased with the election results in India. They hope that Modi will follow through on his pro-business campaign platform and cut the notorious red tape that deters foreign investment in India. This optimism has been visible to anyone watching the Indian stock market, which has soared since BJP’s victory.
  • The U.S. will encourage cooperation between India and Pakistan.
    The potential for the BJP’s Hindu-supremacist principle to manifest is worrisome. Should it do so in India’s foreign relations, it would most likely be in the form of increased rhetoric toward Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as decreased cooperation between the states. The United States has a deep interest in Pakistan due to its role as a frontline state in the War on Terror and would likely go to great lengths to deter India from agitating its western neighbor.

To those viewing the progression of these elections, the sense of optimism among Indians is palpable. But the mandate given to the BJP party is not without expectations. If the new government is able to warm relations with Pakistan as well as further cultivate business and political ties with the United States, the increase in economic productivity and an improved standard of living that so many Indian citizens desire can be attained. If not, however, the party’s majority will very likely not be extended when the polls are next reopened.

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