Climate change politics and the 2019 India elections


This April and May, 2019, will see parliamentary elections in India, a national poll that has international significance – not least with respect to the politics of climate change.



Electoral contestation 


These elections will be fought out between two mainstream blocs: the National Democratic Alliance of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, led by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); and the United Progressive Alliance led by Rahul Gandhi, member of the politically prominent Nehru-Gandhi family and leader of once-dominant Indian National Congress (INC). Until fairly recently, it seemed that the election would be a breeze for Modi and the BJP. Recent mishaps, however, and (more charitably) able INC campaigning has seen a significant tightening of opinion polls. Nevertheless, the BJP remains firmly in the box seat.



Incumbency - Modi’s BJP 


Let’s start with the BJP’s plans, not least in light of their opinion poll lead and the fact of their incumbency. The BJP is a natural starting point for consideration of All-India political discourse, given the centrality that the party has achieved at the federal level.


Positively, the BJP identifies that mitigating against the threat of climate change through  the development of a low carbon economy “is the biggest economic opportunity of the 21st century”. Hence, in its manifesto the BJP commits, if reelected to All-India government, to “pursue national growth objectives through an ecologically sustainable pathway”.



Congress and the INC


The INC’s manifesto similarly commits to investing in non-fossil fuel energy generation, including renewable energy. A distinguishing feature of INC’s energy policy is its particular commitment to nuclear energy; the 2019 manifesto reflects a continuation of that policy preference. The manifesto also commits the INC to the creation of a body devoted to ensuring good governance of India’s natural resource endowments: “We will ensure that an independent regulator monitors the process of natural resource allocation in a manner that best serves the nation’s interest.”


I am personally unconvinced by the INC’s resource governance initiative, which seems vague and non-specific. It is perhaps a method of avoiding making difficult, painful but very necessary decisions on climate change mitigation.


However, a look at the INC’s track record in government since 2014 is somewhat more hopeful on the issue of climate change. The party’s record in government is neither woeful nor wonderful, but rather suggestive of seminal change, away from unhelpful and unresponsive policies on tackling global climate change to a more constructive and positive position.


Someone who embodies this seminal shift is the INC’s Jairam Ramesh, previously Minister for Environment and Forests and now in the Ministry of Rural Development, who represents a bridge from the previous Indian government positions to the ones of the present day. Ramesh was in a Ministerial post at the time of United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 15) in 2009: both his interventions and the perceptions of such intervention are illuminating. He was seen as offering ‘some degree of credibility internationally’ on climate change policy, which is itself a loaded observation. 


Nevertheless, the policy movement that Ramesh represented could not stop COP 15 ending in widely perceived failure. India was slated as one of the two main villains of the summit, even prompting the headline: “How China and India prevented an agreement on tackling climate change at the crucial meeting”.



Expert criticism of both parties


In the context of growing global post-truth rhetoric, quoting an expert may seem unconvincing and even anachronistic. But I shall do so, and unashamedly: without taking aim at any one political party, Leena Srivastava, Executive Director of The Energy and Resources Institute (New Delhi), argues: "the value of the sustainability commitments in the election manifestos put forward by various parties is very low…merely playing around with words is unlikely to win elections – the Indian electorate is smart. A radically different non-partisan commitment to these issues is required, and irrespective of the government in power."



Hoping for better


Much of India and indeed the world ardently hope for better climate change fare from political decision makers – particularly in light of what is currently being served up by both the BJP and the INC. At least the BJP has a record of delivery in government on these issues, but perhaps this is more of a factor of it being most recently (currently) in government – policy and practice under the previous INC-led government had already been moving towards action on climate change. 


Indians will of course make up their own minds on their parliamentary representation through the upcoming election, in which climate change politics will be only one factor amongst many. Either way, it is hoped that a stable, representative, honest and responsive All-India government emerges that is beneficial both for India nationally and globally. Crucially, this ought to occur through the nation’s continued leadership on matters of common and critical concern – not least climate change. 


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