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BJP, PM Modi elected back to power after May 23 vote count; no imminent threat to political stability – India Analysis

Executive Summary

The National Democratic Alliance returned to power for a second consecutive term after the Bharatiya Janata Party secured the single-party majority.

The conflicting opposition strategies on political alliances appear to have weakened the challenge posed to the BJP-led NDA.

The largely personality-driven political campaigning by the ruling alliance also appears to have played a significant role in shaping voting patterns.

The election results are reflective of a consolidation of the national mandate when compared to the 2014 elections, and is unlikely to result in a significant, negative shift as far as the business and security environments are concerned in the immediate term.

Travel to Delhi and other major Indian cities can continue, while travelers are advised to maintain vigilance for security risks associated with frequent, large demonstrations as well as potential militant threats targeting government buildings, security installations, large crowded public places, or religious sites.

Current Situation

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was voted back into power for a second consecutive five-year term following the announcement of the 2019 general assembly elections held across 543 constituencies across 29 states. According to the Election Commission of India (ECI), the BJP won 303 seats while the NDA secured a total of 353 seats.

The NDA won all seats it contested in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, while also securing the majority of seats in Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand. The BJP also secured a landslide win in the southern state of Karnataka where it secured 25 out of a total of 28 seats. The center-ruling party also made considerable inroads into West Bengal and Odisha, while nevertheless ending up in second place in both states.

The Mahagathbandhan (MGB), or Grand Alliance, formed by the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), failed to defeat the BJP in the electorally significant state of Uttar Pradesh. The BJP appears to have won in 62 constituencies out of a total of 80 in the state.

The Indian National Congress (INC)-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won a total of 90 seats.

Assessments

Conflicting opposition strategies on political alliances weakened challenge to BJP-led NDA

As previously assessed, the BJP victory was a result of a lack of cohesion among the opposition parties, thus splitting anti-government votes in key states. The INC’s failure to unequivocally take on the leadership of an opposition front, such as the Mahagathbandhan, was due to prevailing considerations within the party leadership that it could capitalize on short-term anti-BJP sentiment to take the elections on its own merit. However, the final results indicate that the INC-led UPA has only gained 24 seats in comparison with 2014, which is a less-than-expected tally. Further, it continued to work with traditional regional allies, many of whom did not necessarily have adequate momentum going into these elections.

This is in contrast with the BJP – the party retained key allies in states where disaffection against them was building, such as in Maharashtra, where it restored ties with the Shiv Sena. Similar overtures were made to parties such as the Janata Dal-United (JDU), and coordination of strategy in terms of candidate allocation and seat sharing was also observed. On the other hand, the party retained strategic allies in states where it has not been conventionally strong. This includes the northeastern states, where the BJP-led Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA) weathered unrest over the Citizenship Amendment Bill to lead in states like Assam.

Policy issues overtaken by personality-driven campaigns, focus placed on national narratives

Despite the initial traction that policy issues such as demonetization, unemployment, and security gained during the pre-election discourse, the focus of campaigns by both the ruling and opposition sides have been personality-driven. This is not necessarily a novel concept, given that regional politics has long been dominated by strong figures, around whom campaigns are structured. However, the BJP’s utilization of this strategy at the national level, combining social media and targeted campaigns with demographics-rooted nuance, is highly notable and builds on early versions of such an approach from 2014. Given the large numbers of first-time voters, pegged at close to 15 million in the 18-19 age group, the use of candidates with targeted appeal and closely-managed social media campaigns likely factored in voting trends. In many cases, the families of career-politicians were passed over in favor of newer candidates. This was witnessed in Bangalore, where 28-year-old Tejaswi Surya was chosen instead of five-time MP Ananth Kumar’s wife, while actor Sunny Deol was favored over the wife of actor Rajesh Khanna.

Another notable trend that has strengthened since 2014 is the distinction that the electorate had made between national politics and state parties with regard to policy. While the BJP was voted out in legislative elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh in late 2018, the party won with a resounding margin in these states during the current parliamentary elections. Voters increasingly isolated factors such as unemployment and agrarian discontent to the perceived incompetence of state BJP governments, while preferring that the party nevertheless hold power at the center. Public sentiment surrounding PM Modi’s administration in these states appears to have concluded that poorly performing BJP state governments did not detract from the ruling party’s broader intent.

Platforms such as national security, which have emerged as a key factor since the Pulwama attack and skirmishes with Pakistan in February, have likely buttressed this trend. Further, opposition parties including the INC were positioned to the electorate as primarily anti-incumbent, but not necessarily presenting a clear policy platform of their own. INC tactics focussed on recent scandals such as the Rafale deal were seen as an extension of this campaign orientation. In contrast, INC policy platforms such as the Nyunatam Aay Yojana (Nyay) scheme, a minimum income guarantee scheme, were late inclusions in the campaigns and thus, did not pay significant electoral dividends.

Immediate-term impact on business interests, security to remain unchanged

In the immediate term, a BJP-led NDA victory will be seen as a generally positive development, given the government’s overall perceived business-friendly image.  This has been indicated by the recent rallying of stock market indices in the weeks prior to the elections, as exit polls indicated a BJP win. The rally was marked by notable but short-term gains on May 23, and the subsequent drops may be reflective of long-term structural economic concerns. However, the continuity associated with the BJP’s win will be seen as providing greater levels of stability in the immediate term. Coordination between the central and state governments, especially in the states where the BJP has significant political sway or a party-led government, can be expected on policy issues. Finally, the BJP’s majority position in the Lok Sabha will also reduce its reliance on coalition partners, granting greater stability to the incoming national government. Overall, the NDA’s return to power is unlikely to result in a significant, negative shift as far as the immediate business and security environment is concerned at the national level.

FORECAST: An examination of the overall vote share of the BJP shows a rise since 2014, as the party is pegged to gain close to 40 percent of the total vote share alone, as opposed to the 31 percent share in 2014. This may be indicative of a more consolidated national mandate when compared to the last elections. However, as witnessed after the 2014 elections, continued polarization within the electorate is liable to manifest in localized socio-political and religious tensions, especially between the BJP and minority communities. Caste and inter-religious conflict may see a rise over the long term, based on the extent to which right-wing groups affiliated with the BJP are emboldened post elections. However, these conflicts will largely be localized, and are not expected to destabilize security at the broader national level. States where the BJP has seen increased vote share gains, such as West Bengal and some constituencies of Kerala, will be particular flashpoints of conflict. The party will seek to displace volatile INC-led state coalition governments, such as in Karnataka. In the immediate term, the BJP win is liable to have an impact on local disaffection in Kashmir, ahead of state elections in Jammu and Kashmir. There is a potential for an increase in militancy and separatist unrest, in reaction to the key gains the BJP made in the state during the general elections.

Recommendations

Travel to Delhi and other major Indian cities can continue, while travelers are advised to maintain vigilance for security risks associated with frequent, large demonstrations as well as potential militant threats targeting government buildings, security installations, large crowded public places, or religious sites.

Those operating or residing in India are advised to maintain general vigilance due to the risk of localized and isolated incidents of unrest in the aftermath of the election results.

Avoid discussing controversial issues regarding the elections with unfamiliar individuals, especially topics related to caste or religion due to the risk of eliciting confrontational behavior.

Avoid the vicinity of party offices and celebratory rallies due to the latent risk of violence. Allot for temporary disruptions to travel during these rallies, especially in major cities.

Remain cognizant of local laws and post-electoral sensitivities especially when posting on social media, due to the risk of legal action or state prosecution as a response to controversial content.

Widespread unrest reflects discontent with Rouhani’s economic policies, money spent in regional conflict; protests likely to subside – Iran Analysis

Current Situation

A reported leak of President Rouhani’s proposed government budget last month has triggered a wave of nationwide unrest in Iran which erupted on December 28. The budget leak exposed parts that were generally kept secret, and Iranians discovered that billions of USD were going to the military, hardline organizations, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and religious foundations. At the same time, the budget proposed an end to millions in subsidized and an increase in fuel prices.

Following the leaked budget, Iranians vented their frustration against the money going to the military and clerical establishment via a popular messaging app in Iran used by an estimated half of the country’s 80 million inhabitants.

On December 28, 2017, the hardliners, led by the prominent Ahmad Alamolhoda, started a demonstration in Mashhad, where hundreds shouted slogans against the weak economy and shouted “Death to the Dictator,” and “Death to Rouhani.” Videos of the event spread and triggered protests nationwide in the days that followed, despite attempts by authorities to block access to popular social media and messaging services used to organize and publicize the protests.

On January 2, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded to the unrest stating that the blamed “outside enemies” for the week’s events, without specifying who. President Rouhani, meanwhile, appealed for calm and maintained that the protesters “had the right to be heard.”

At the time of writing, the unrest has reportedly led to at least 450 arrests and 21 deaths.

Widespread unrest reflects discontent with Rouhani’s economic policies, money spent in regional conflict; protests likely to subside - Iran Analysis | MAX Security

 Widespread unrest reflects discontent with Rouhani’s economic policies, money spent in regional conflict; protests likely to subside - Iran Analysis | MAX Security

Assessments & Forecast

The unrest recorded over the past week comes amidst small-scale protests witnessed across Iran over the past months surrounding topics of economy and employment. These include demonstrations of hundreds of oil workers and truck drivers protesting late payment of wages, workers at a large sugar cane plantation and mill complex, bus drivers, teachers, tractor workers in Tabriz against their factory’s closure, Tehran tyre workers at bonuses being delayed, and victims of failed financial institutions across the country. In this context, the leaked budget served as a catalyst for these latest protests, and underscores the frustration and anger among large segments of the population over social-economic problems among the disaffected young people in peripheral, rural areas who have largely driven the demonstrations, in stark contrast to the protests witnessed in 2009 during the so-called “Green Revolution”, which were largely led by the urban middle class.

While the unrest began over economic grievances, it has since taken on a political dimension as demonstrators have voiced anger over corruption and the perceived authoritarian political system as a whole. This is reflected particularly in the anger over Iran’s regional policies and how it spends billions of USD to extend its influence abroad, including in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, despite the high unemployment and economic woes at home, as highlighted by the slogans of “Let go of Syria, think about us” and “I give my life for Iran, not Gaza, not Lebanon”. Moreover, what makes these protests exceptionally notable is the extent of the radical and sometimes slogans used, as some have called for the death of the president and even unprecedented calls of “Death to Khamenei” and calling for the Supreme Leader to step down and demanding the exit of clerics from politics.

FORECAST: We assess that it’s unlikely that the protest movement will survive in the long-term and lead to a collapse of the system for several reasons. First, the fact that it has taken on a political dimension and the use of political slogans has been exploited by the authorities as a justification to crack down on protesters as “anti-social” and violent elements. Moreover, this government approach has been aided by the support protesters have received from abroad, particularly from the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. The Iranian authorities already perceive, or at the very least vocalize the perception that the unrest has been manufactured and manipulated by foreign governments. That these foreign governments are openly and publicly supporting the protests will thus only further serve to strengthen this perception and allow the government to increase its crackdowns under the guise of protecting Iran’s sovereignty from the interference of foreign states. With this in mind, should the Iranian authorities decide to implement their forces fully, including the IRGC and the Basij, in repressing the protests, it’s highly likely the demonstrations will be swiftly minimized.

Second, unlike the “Green Revolution” in 2009, these latest protests lack leadership, alternative, and a shared vision. Protesters are united in what they don’t want, rather than what they want, as indicated by the often contradictory slogans. Some want democracy, yet more nostalgic ones praise the former monarchy and the Shah. Demonstrators have called for the death of moderate Rouhani, yet also called for an end to the clerical establishment. Others still are invoking nationalistic ideals and racial slogans, such as “We are Aryans, we don’t worship Arabs.” Overall, given this lack of leadership and organization, the protests are likely to either peter out over time, particularly if the government shows a willingness to make concessions and reforms or will be quelled by an increased crackdown.

That said, we assess that the heightened unrest will continue for longer in the country’s peripheral regions where both civil unrest and militancy stemming from sectarian tensions have long been an issue. These include the southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province, a predominantly Arab-populated southwestern Iran, including primarily Khuzestan Province, and the majority-Kurdish-populated northwestern Iranian provinces of Kordestan, West Azerbaijan, Kermanshah, and Ilam. Over the past week, we have already witnessed a higher level of unrest and arrests in these areas, as local activists and militant groups are likely seeking to exploit the nationwide discontent to further their own separatist ambitions. Furthermore, the authorities have a history of severely cracking down on these regions, thus making it more likely for escalations between security forces and locals. Over the coming weeks and months, such escalation will likely lock these regions in a vicious cycle of arrests, which subsequently provoke the locals to further unrest and militant attacks, prompting a security crackdown in return.

Recommendations

Business travel to Tehran, Esfahan and other major cities may continue at this time while remaining cognizant of ongoing protests and avoiding the vicinity of such events.

Western nationals are advised to remain cognizant to prevailing negative sentiment toward the United States and other North American and Western European countries.

We advise against all travel to outlying border areas with Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Armenia due to ongoing militant activity.

Those traveling to Iran should anticipate prolonged questioning by customs officials. Refrain from traveling with sophisticated cameras or other features affiliated with journalists. Cooperate with all security officials and respond to questioning in a respectable and calm manner.

Refrain from discussing the current political situation, Iran’s nuclear program, or tensions with the United States and Israel with local residents as a basic precaution. Be advised that authorities may monitor communications from hotels and other facilities frequented by foreigners, while internet access may be limited.

In the event that embassy services are required, it is advised to check the operational status of pertinent embassies and consulates. Consular services for US citizens are provided through the auspices of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.