Will climate change swing India’s election?

As the world’s largest democracy heads for the polls, India’s political parties have been concerningly quiet about climate change.

India elections 2024
As India heads for the polls, discussions about climate action and sustainability are curiously absent in election campaigns and political narratives, which has been dominated by livelihood and governance issues. Image: /Flickr.

As just under a billion people prepare to head for the polls amid scorching summer temperatures, to what extent will they be concerned about climate change as they cast their votes?

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, is seeking a third five-year term with few strong challengers to unseat him. But the Indian electorate finds itself lacking candidates who prioritise climate and sustainability issues to give themselves a potential political edge.

Thousands of contenders will vie for seats in the 543-member lower house of parliament from April to June, tasked with legislating on renewable energy, pollution, water security, electric mobility and environmental regulation for the next five years.

Home to 1.4 billion people, India is among the most climate-vulnerable countries. Yet, discussions about climate action and sustainability are curiously absent in election campaigns and political narratives.

“In India, climate is not a central election issue,” said Dhruba Purkayastha, India director for non-profit research and advisory institution Climate Policy Initiative.

A telling statistic is that only 0.3 per cent of questions raised in India’s parliament between 1999 and 2019 pertained to climate-related matters. However, there has been a marginal but steady increase in recent years.

“While many communities, such as farmers and fishermen, are directly affected [by climate change], they need to understand the origin of these issues. In the Global South, I don’t think people are informed enough and you can’t expect the electorate to lead the charge for climate action when many basic needs are not being met. I would not expect pressure on the political class to come from the ground up,” Purkayastha added.

Campaign narratives focus mainly on livelihood and governance issues, leaving little space for other concerns.

It is worth noting that the campaign trail itself contributes to environmental degradation. It is an energy-intensive and plastic-laden process, leaving a significant carbon footprint over the 44-day election period. 

Misplaced priorities, myopic approach 

Although major political parties are yet to release their manifestos for the upcoming elections, their spokespersons have hinted at their contents. Representatives from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emphasised that while there won’t be a separate section addressing climate action, promises will be geared towards overall development.

Shazia Ilmi, a national spokesperson for the BJP, asserted that Modi’s initiatives on renewable energy, electric mobility, and emissions reduction will continue, albeit without disclosing specifics.

Under Modi’s leadership, India has made ambitious decarbonisation pledges, including establishing 500 gigawatts (GW) of installed capacity from non-fossil fuel sources and achieving net-zero emissions by 2030 and achieving net zero emissions by 2070. Progress on projects aligned with these goals has been significant thus far.

In what has been a major policy-driven achievement, India’s installed renewable energy capacity has more than doubled from 76.37GW in March 2014 to 179GW in October of last year under the Modi administration.

If the interim budget presented in February serves as an indication of what the next five years under BJP could hold, similar green policies are poised to gain momentum.

But despite these commitments, coal continues to dominate India’s energy mix, with little indication of change in the near future. On the contrary, India has signalled a steady ramping up of coal production over the coming years.

“Regardless of party or ideology, the political environment in India tends to maintain a consistent stance on fossil fuel utilisation,” said Nandini Das, acting deputy director at the Australian-based think tank Climate Analytics.

Das highlighted the myopic approach of most political parties, which are often driven by short-term political gains rather than long-term sustainability.

“Internationally, India has shown a growing recognition of the importance of addressing climate change, exemplified by its commitment to ambitious renewable energy targets. However, at the national level and across all party lines, there is a limited effort to integrate climate change and environmental concerns into mainstream political discourse, even in urban centres,” said Das.

Modi has positioned himself as a leading voice of the Global South on climate action, a cornerstone of the government’s foreign policy initiatives when it comes to India’s overtures with developing countries.

“This disparity is concerning considering India’s status as one of the most climate-vulnerable countries globally. The consequences of climate change pose a significant threat, with potential risks to up to 4.5 per cent of India’s GDP by 2030. Despite this, the issue struggles to gain prominence in political debate,” said Das.

While there is evidence to suggest that Indian voters are increasingly aware of climate change effects and supportive of measures to address them, it’s yet to become a major electoral issue.

“Why isn’t air quality a central discussion in the campaign, given that most Indian cities rank among the world’s most polluted?” questioned Suruchi Bhadwal, director of the research organisation The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI).

“Why is water security not being discussed when we’re grappling with a severe water crisis? What about food productivity and food prices? These are not the topics that are being discussed but other unimportant topics are,” said Bhadwal.

Bhadwal emphasised the need for political maturity in addressing pertinent issues rather than reactionary responses to the ruling party’s agenda.

The BJP’s political opponents, under the umbrella bloc INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance), comprising around 40 anti-BJP parties, are yet to announce a joint promise or manifesto.

However, the Indian National Congress (INC), the central component of the alliance, will include a dedicated section on climate action plans in its forthcoming manifesto.

“In April, there will be maps published in newspapers showing North India in red, meaning very, very high temperatures. There’ll be discussions about heatwaves. Indirectly, people will be paying attention to climate issues,” said Rajeev Gowda, national spokesperson for INC.

“Congress will have a whole section for climate change policies, just like the previous year. This section will not just focus on what we need to do to address climate change directly but also have a section called ‘green jobs’,” said Gowda, who was part of the manifesto drafting committee in 2019.

Regardless of the election outcome, the critical question remains as to who will bankroll climate-focused initiatives.

“Financing is key to addressing many of these issues,” insisted Sangeeth Selvaraju, policy analyst on sustainable finance at the LSE’s Grantham Research Institute.

“The global financial system has about 500 trillion dollars in total assets. India has merely 1 per cent of that. We need hundreds and hundreds of billions in investment every year to achieve climate goals. So who’s going to pay for it?” said Selvaraju.

Most popular

Featured Events

Publish your event
leaf background pattern

Transforming Innovation for Sustainability Join the Ecosystem →