WASHINGTON,D.C.—The Congressional Research Service, considered the U.S. Congress’ own think tank, in a preview of the Indian election, has declared that the 2019 election could be an “inflection point in India history,” and predicted that if the BJP records yet another overwhelming victory, it would “herald a new era of single-party dominance.”
In an CRS Insight, authored by K. Alan Kronstadt, its longtime specialist in South Asian Affairs and circulated to U.S. lawmakers and Congressional committees late last month, and made available to the public on the eve of the Indian election that kicked off on April 11, the report recalled that the BJP’s 2014 win, “with 52 percent of Lok Sabha seats, marked an end to 30 years of coalition politics at the national level.”
“A repeat performance could thus herald a new era of single-party dominance,” it said, and added, “Perhaps more crucially, the election pits an unabashedly Hindu nationalist prime minister and ruling party against an array of more secular- minded parties, some focused on the interests of India’s large lower-caste and Muslim minorities.”
The report noted that “secularism has been a more-or-less enshrined value in India, although its conception in both theory and practice varies widely,” and said the “landmark choice,” for Indian voters would necessarily “be between two overarching identities for their country-- one, a pluralist, secular polity where religious minorities enjoy full equality; the other, a nation in which roughly 250 million non-Hindu citizens must accept Hindi majoritarianism with potential dire consequences for India’s civil liberties.”
In providing the members of Congress an overview of the opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the report said that “Congress Party chief Rahul Gandhi-- the inheritor of a family dynasty that includes three past prime ministers--has the highest profile among potential leaders of an opposition coalition, even as his party conveys respect for the aspirations of regional party leaders.”
Consequently, it pointed out that “Modi has become the primary, if not sole target of the opposition, but no individual challenger has emerged. Still, the opposition’s zeal to oust the NDA has led to some unusual alliances.”
The report recalled how in January, the leaders of two powerful Uttar Pradesh-based parties agreed to set aside their bitter rivalry to cooperate in defeating the BJP. Other influential regional parties are maneuvering toward a potential opposition grand alliance.”
While arguing that “coalition governments are sometimes faulted for instability,” it acknowledged, “they may also compel leaders to negotiate and take account of a wider variety of perspectives, while secure majority governments can lead to complacency and arrogance.”
Where foreign policy issues are concerned, the report said that they “are typically of low priority for Indian voters.”
It said, “Modi has won plaudits for successfully projecting India as the globe’s next big economic opportunity, while many critics say he lacks a coherent strategic vision and has squandered an opportunity to make India a great power.”
But the report acknowledged, “The February 2019 bombing in Kashmir, blamed on a Pakistan-based terrorist group, and an unprecedented retaliatory airstrike on Pakistani territory, pushed foreign affairs into the headlines and triggered a sharp spike of Indian nationalism that is widely expected to benefit the incumbent BJP.”
Specifically, where U.S.-India relations are concerned that is of interest to the U.S. Congress, Kronstadt’s report predicted that “the 14-year-old U.S.-India strategic partnership” that was “co-launched by a Congress Party-led coalition government, and the trend toward closer bilateral ties most likely will continue regardless of a leadership change in New Delhi.”
But that said, it said the consensus among many analysts were that “Modi and the BJP have been and would continue to be more open to aligning with U.S. regional strategy— perhaps especially that seeking to balance against growing Chinese influence—and more energetic in pursuing economic reforms than would be any likely alternative Indian leadership.”
“To the extent that U.S. officials and Members of Congress emphasize human rights violations and the sturdiness of civil and democratic institutions in India (and globally), a continuation of the BJP-led administration could entail an unwelcome continuation of its perceived illiberal policies,” the report added.
Kronstadt has been the resident lead expert on South Asian affairs at the CRS since 2002, providing analyses for member of Congress and their staff on developments in and U.S. relations with India and Pakistan, including intelligence briefs and confidential analyses.
He holds a Ph.D in international relations from the University of Southern California and an M.A. in international affairs from The American University in Washington, D.C.
Although the CRS operates solely at the behest of and under the direction of Congress, it makes clear that it is a bipartisan and independent research wing of the U.S. Congress and “information in a CRS Report should not be relied upon for purposes other than public understanding of information that has been provided by CRS to Members of Congress in connection with CRS’s institutional role.”
Thus, its reports prepared by foreign policy and area and particularly subject experts, are not the official view of the U.S. Congress or the perspective of a particular U.S. lawmaker or Committee, that may have solicited the report.