The 1999 Indian Parliamentary Elections and the New BJP-led Coalition Government

The results of India's 13th parliamentary election confirmed survey and exit-poll predictions of a secure victory for the 24-party National Democratic Alliance (NDA). On October 13, 1999, the Bharatiya Janata Party's Atal Bihari Vajpayee, leader of the Alliance, took the oath of office as Prime Minister of India, heading a 70-member Council of Ministers.

It was India's third election in a little more than three years, forced by the collapse of the previous BJP-led government of Prime Minister Vajpayee. In April 1999, the AIADMK, the regional Tamil Nadu party led by Jayalalitha, withdrew its support from the government, denying the coalition its requisite majority in parliament. Efforts by Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi to forge a new coalition government failed, and President Narayanan called new elections, asking Vajpayee to stay on as the head of a "care-taker" government.

The elections were conducted over five days, one week apart, beginning September 5 and ending October 3. The ballot count began on October 6. There were some 600 million eligible voters, 5 million election officials and staff, and 800,000 polling stations. With 7 recognized "national" parties, 2 "regional" parties, and another 657 parties too small to secure official recognition, some 4000 candidates entered the race for the 543 contested seats. As always, when India goes to the polls, it was the world's biggest election, and the turnout, despite predictions of voter fatigue, was an impressive 60 percent.

As in 1998, there were three basic groupings, though the pattern of alliances was modified as parties split or shifted allegiance. The BJP's skill in forging the new National Democratic Alliance expanded the number of parties committed to Vajpayee's leadership to 24. The BJP, setting aside its own Hindu nationalist agenda in favor of a "common program," was at the core of the alliance that included regional parties as disparate and ideologically incompatible as the Hindu chauvinist Shiv Sena of Maharashtra and the pragmatic, secular Telugu Desam of Andhra and DMK of Tamil Nadu.

The Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi, Italian-born widow of assassinated former Prime Minster Rajiv Gandhi, sought to project the prospect of single-party government in the old Congress mold and held back from alliances save, notably, for those forged with the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar, parties led, respectively, by Jayalalitha and Laloo Yadev, both under indictment for corruption.

A "third force" that never really congealed was made up of parties from what was left of the National Front/Left Front combine, principally the Communist Party of India (Marxist), various Janata Dal splinters, and a handful of regional parties.

Playing it alone, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), concentrated in the state of Uttar Pradesh, directed its appeal to the Dalits ("untouchables") and Muslims.

The main electoral arena pitted the BJP and its allies against the Congress, and the campaign had something of the character of a presidential election, with Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi projected over parties or issues. Before the campaign had even begun, the Congress was confronted by crisis, as the powerful Congress leader from Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar, challenged Sonia's leadership on the grounds of her Italian birth, and broke to form his own Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The BJP immediately took up the drumbeat of Sonia's foreign origin, and contrasted the "videshi" (foreign) with its own "swadeshi" (home-grown) credentials. To challenge Sonia in Bellary, a Karnataka constituency, the BJP put up one of its most formidable women, Sushma Swaraj, and the contest drew international attention. (As permitted under Indian election law, Sonia also contested another constituency, Amethi, in Uttar Pradesh, from which Rajiv had been elected.)

In addition to the issue of Sonia's "foreign origin," the BJP sought to capitalize on the Vajpayee's successful handling of the Kargil war (see IndiaUpdate), but although both played a part in the decision of some voters, as did sympathy for Vajpayee generated by the manner in which his government had been brought down, the most critical factors in deciding the elections were at the state level and related to caste and to the performance of state governments. Generally favorable economic conditions, with low inflation, a good monsoon, and an upturn in industrial growth, added some boost to the BJP, but the economic factor figured principally in terms of local bread-and-butter concerns. Market reforms were not a significant issue in the elections, reflecting the near consensus among political parties in support of economic liberalization.

The election results brought Vajpayee's National Democratic Alliance a majority in India's 545-seat Lok Sabha, with 299 of the 537 seats contested and 41% of the vote. (Voting in another 6 constituencies had been postponed; 2 seats--for Anglo-Indians--are by appointment.) The alliances forged by Vajpayee were the key to victory. BJP won 182 seats, only marginally better than the 179 it won in 1998, but its allies bagged another 117 seats. The Telugu Desam Party of Andhra Pradesh came back with 29 seats; the Shiv Sena won 15; the DMK of Tamil Nadu won 12. Especially important for prospects of political stability is that, despite the number of parties on which the new government is dependent, it will be less vulnerable to the kind of extortion that ultimately brought down the previous Vajpayee government. At least no one party will be able to bring it down, as the AIADMK did in April.

The BJP secured 23.8 percent of the vote, slightly below its 25.5 percent in 1998--but in deference to its allies, the BJP contested far fewer constituencies than in 1998--340 seats, down from 384 in the previous election. But if the BJP roughly held its own nationally in seats and votes, it suffered a major setback in India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, where voters passed a negative judgment on the BJP state government's poor performance. The BJP won only 29 of the state's 85 parliamentary seats--down from the 57 seats it won in 1998.

The Congress and its allies won 134 seats and 34 percent of the vote. The Congress itself, with 28 percent of the vote, won only 112 seats (down 28 from the last parliament), its worst performance since independence. The party had failed make the alliances that proved crucial to success, and its two main regional allies, the AIADMK and the RJD did poorly--and Laloo Yadev, former Chief Minister of Bihar, lost his election bid. But despite the Congress party's dramatic fall in seats, it fared well in a few states, notably Karnataka and Punjab, and made something of a comeback in Uttar Pradesh (where it had been completely wiped out in 1998). In the state assembly elections in Karnataka that accompanied the parliamentary vote, a Congress victory enabled the party to take power in the southern state. Sonia won handily in both the constituencies she contested, choosing to retain the Amethi seat as her parliamentary base. Although contesting no seat herself, Priyanka Gandhi, 27, was at her mother's side during much of the campaign and drew adulation as the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty's hope for the political future.

The Left Front continued its decline, down to 42 seats and 7 percent of the vote. The Communist Party (Marxist) took the largest number, with 32 seats, but the CPI won only 4 seats and, with less than 5 percent of votes cast, faced loss of its official status as a "national party."

Among other parties, the Samajwadi Party (SP) won 26 seats, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) won 14 seats--with each party taking all its seats in Uttar Pradesh.

Results are incomplete, with 6 constituencies yet to be polled, and among sources, there is slight variation. The results, both in seats and in percentage of votes, reported here must be taken as "tentative" pending final and official figures.

Vote by Party & Alliance in 1999


 Seats contested

 Seats won

  % of Vote

 BJP & Allies








 Telugu Desam Party



 Janata Dal (U)



 Shiv Sena









 Congress & Allies

















 Others & independents      





















For background and analyses of the elections, turn first to Philip Oldenburg, "The Thirteenth Election of India's Lok Sabha," prepared before the elections for The Asia Society and posted on its web site at

Also see The Asia Society's Special Report on "Indian Elections":

Indian newspapers and magazines carried extensive coverage of the campaign and the election results, with Frontline (biweekly from Chennai) providing particularly good data and analyses. Among various web sites posting election results, India World provides good tables for vote by party and by state:

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