Updated May 31, 2019
India’s Domestic Political Setting
India, the world’s most populous democracy, is, according
to its Constitution, a “sovereign, socialist, secular,
democratic republic” where the bulk of executive power
rests with the prime minister and his Council of Ministers
(the Indian president is a ceremonial chief of state with
limited executive powers). Since its 1947 independence,
most of India’s 14 prime ministers have come from the
country’s Hindi-speaking northern regions, and all but 3
have been upper-caste Hindus. The 543-seat Lok Sabha
(House of the People) is the locus of national power, with
directly elected representatives from each of the country’s
29 states and 7 union territories. The president has the
power to dissolve this body. A smaller upper house of a
maximum 250 seats, the Rajya Sabha (Council of States),
may review, but not veto, revenue legislation, and has no
power over the prime minister or his/her cabinet. Lok Sabha
and state legislators are elected to five-year terms. Rajya
Sabha legislators are elected by state assemblies to six-year
terms; 12 are appointed by the president.
Elections to seat India’s 17th Lok Sabha were held in April
and May 2019, when the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party
(BJP, or “Indian Peoples Party”) won a sweeping and repeat
victory under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 2014, the
BJP had become the first party to attain a parliamentary
majority in 30 years, and it was able to expand that majority
in 2019 to become the first party to win consecutive
majorities since 1971. Modi, a self-avowed Hindu
nationalist, ran a campaign seen as divisive by many
analysts. While he and his party have long sought to
emphasize development and good governance, five years in
office have brought a mixed record, and this election cycle
revolved around nationalism, with growing concerns among
many observers that strident Hindu majoritarianism
represents a threat both to India’s religious minorities and
to the country’s syncretic traditions. Still, hundreds of
millions across the country voted to keep the remarkably
popular prime minister in power for another term. The BJP,
under then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, previously
had led a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition in
power from 1999 to 2004.
The Indian National Congress Party (hereinafter “Congress
Party”) and its United Progressive Alliance (UPA)
coalition, in power from 2004-2014 with Manmohan Singh
in the top office, suffered a second consecutive electoral
rout. The party of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal
Nehru, Congress had dominated the country’s politics from
1947 to 1977. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi (no relation
to Mohandas Gandhi), and her son, Rajiv, also served as
prime minister; both were assassinated in office. The
party’s presumed prime ministerial candidate in 2014 and
2019, Rajiv’s son, Rahul, again oversaw a failure to win
even the 10% of seats required to officially lead the Lok
The BJP and Congress are India’s only genuinely national
parties. In previous recent national elections they together
won roughly half of all votes cast, but in 2019 the BJP
boosted its share to nearly 38% of the estimated 600 million
votes cast (to Congress’s 20%; turnout was a record 67%).
The influence of regional and caste-based (and often
“family-run”) parties—although blunted by two
consecutive BJP majority victories—remains a crucial
variable in Indian politics. Such parties now hold nearly
one-third of Lok Sabha seats. In 2019, more than 8,000
candidates and hundreds of parties vied for parliament
seats; 33 of those parties won at least one seat. The seven
parties listed below account for 84% of Lok Sabha seats
(see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Party Representation in the 17th Lok Sabha
(543 total seats + 2 appointed)
The BJP’s economic reform agenda can be impeded in the
Rajya Sabha, where opposition parties can align to block
certain nonrevenue legislation (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Party Representation in the Rajya Sabha
(233 total seats + 12 appointed)
Key Government Officials
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was chief minister of the
economically dynamic and relatively developed western
India’s Domestic Political Setting
state of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014 before becoming India’s
first-ever lower-caste prime minster. He is a lifelong
member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS or
“National Volunteer Organization”; see below).
leader Mamata Banerjee is also chief minister. The AITMC,
a UPA member from 2004 to 2012, won 22 Lok Sabha
seats in 2019.
Defense Minister Rajnath Singh was home minister from
2014 to 2019, BJP president during the 2014 campaign, and
has served as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and in the
cabinet of the BJP-led government from 1999 to 2004.
YSR Congress (YSRCP) was founded in 2011 by
Jaganmohan Reddy, the son of a former Andhra Pradesh
chief minister, after an acrimonious split with Congress. It
now dominates the state assembly and won 22 Lok Sabha
seats in 2019.
Home Minister Amit Shah, a top Modi lieutenant and
campaign strategist from Gujarat, is also a longtime RSS
member, and has been BJP party president since 2014. His
first federal cabinet appointment came in 2019.
Shiv Sena is a vociferously Hindu nationalist, ethnic
Marathi party based in Maharashtra that has long aligned
itself with the BJP at the national level. The NDA member
won 18 Lok Sabha seats in 2019.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s first-ever
female finance minister, is a Tamil Nadu native and was the
BJP’s national spokeswoman before serving as defense
minister from 2017 to 2019.
Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)), a secularist, social
democratic party with its main votebank in Bihar, is led by
state Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who aligned the party
with the BJP in 2017. The NDA member won 16 Lok
Sabha seats in 2019.
External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was
foreign secretary from 2015 to 2018 and has served as
India’s Ambassador to the United States and China. He is
the first-ever career diplomat to hold the MEA portfolio.
Commerce and Industry Minister and Railways Minister
Piyush Goyal, a former investment banker and BJP
stalwart from Maharashtra, has led the railways ministry
since 2017 and received the commerce portfolio in 2019.
National Security Advisor Ajit Kumar Doval, who took
the post in 2014, is a veteran intelligence officer from
Kerala and served as Director of the Intelligence Bureau
from 2004 to 2005.
President Ram Nath Kovind, a former BJP Rajya Sabhan
from Uttar Pradesh, became head of state in 2017.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) arose in 1980 as the
political wing of the RSS, a militant Hindu nationalist and
social service group itself founded in 1925 and progenitor
of dozens of affiliated organizations (the “Sangh Parivar”).
The BJP advocates Hindu nationalism (“Hindutva”) and is
right-leaning on social policy with a generally more probusiness outlook than others, although it is also home to
“swadeshi” (self-sufficiency) sentiments. The party
emerged as the only national-level competitor for the Indian
National Congress after 1998. The BJP won 303 Lok Sabha
seats with 38% of the popular vote in 2019.
Indian National Congress is generally regarded as a
populist, center-left party, although a Congress-led
government presided over significant economic
liberalization in the early 1990s. Rajiv Gandhi’s widow,
Sonia, is UPA chairwoman and their son, Rahul, serves as
party president. Both offered to resign in the wake of
historic electoral defeats in 2014 and 2019. The UPAleading party won 52 Lok Sabha seats with 20% of the
Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is a Tamil Nadubased party led by former Chennai mayor M.K. Stalin.
Social democratic with a mostly ethnic Tamil constituency,
the UPA member won 23 Lok Sabha seats in 2019.
Others: Two major regional parties, Uttar Pradesh’s
Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, were bitter
rivals that struck a rare alliance to compete with the BJP in
2019. They garnered a combined 47% of the state’s total
votes, but won a disproportionately low 15 of the state’s 80
Lok Sabha seats. Similarly, in Tamil Nadu, the regional All
India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), an NDA
member, received nearly 19% of the state’s votes while
winning one of the state’s 38 Lok Sabha seats.
Federal System and State Elections
The Indian Constitution divides legislative powers into a
Union List, a State List, and a Concurrent List. Although
India’s union government is granted more powers than in
most other federal systems (including that of the United
States), the State List provides state assemblies and their
chief ministers with exclusive powers over 66 “items,”
including public order, law enforcement, health care, and
power, communication, and transportation networks.
Nearly half of Indians live in only five states—Uttar
Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal, and Madhya
Pradesh. Uttar Pradesh, with more than 200 million
citizens, was among five states holding elections in 2017;
these were widely previewed as being a referendum on the
central government’s performance to date, and they brought
a sweeping win for the BJP, which ousted the incumbent
Samajwadi Party to take more than three-quarters of Uttar
Pradesh’s assembly seats—the largest majority for any
party in the key “Hindu belt” state since 1980.
Despite some state-level setbacks in late 2018 (Congress
won convincingly in Madhya Pradesh and two other states),
the BJP is now in power in 12 Indian states, with allied
party chief ministers in another 6. The Congress Party
controls four state governments, with an ally leading one
other. Steadily broadening its state assembly presence in
recent years, the BJP now accounts for nearly one-third of
the country’s state legislators, as compared to just over onefifth for the declining Congress. This is expected to lead to
a BJP majority in the Rajya Sabha as soon as 2021.
K. Alan Kronstadt, Specialist in South Asian Affairs
All India Trinamool Congress (AITMC), a professedly
secular party, wins its support in West Bengal, where party
India’s Domestic Political Setting
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