Who among us does not feel the pulse of U.S. Presidential elections? Pundits, news debates, predictions, polls…and more polls have become a ubiquitous part of our lives leading up to Election Day. They are the envy of the world, often hailed as being the largest democratic exercise in the world–except they are not. The electorate of 100 million U.S. voters is only a fraction of India’s 814 million voters that will elect a new government over the next few days.
While the network news channels continue to obsess over MH 370, the world’s largest democracy has just about started its hunt for a new government. These elections last 35 days, almost as long as the soccer World Cup that takes place in Brazil this summer and is almost as exciting (Don’t take my word for it; Buzzfeed says the same.) It has already been hailed as the second most expensive election in the world, second only to the U.S. Presidential elections of 2012, except the size of the electorate comes in at eight times that of the one we find here. The elections this year have had the effect of polarizing intellectuals, industrialists and the common man alike, as the country continues to grapple with economic havoc, perilously low growth rates, inflation and endemic corruption. The incumbent UPA government under the leadership of Mr. Singh is considered largely unpopular because of the current state of the Indian economy, which has been plagued with high rates of inflation, dwindling growth rates and high levels of employment. This has led to a rise in popularity of a right wing Hindu nationalist party, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), likened by many as India’s very own GOP. The party has projected Mr. Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate.
Mr. Modi is riding on his reputation of being a pro-business, development-oriented leader, largely credited by India’s business community for his role in rapid industrialization projects in his state of Gujarat (a major Western state). However, his critics accuse him of being a communal and divisive force, largely because of the massive riots that occurred in his state in 2002 that resulted in clashes between Hindus and Muslims, resulting in the death of 1,000 Muslims. While the supreme court of the country has exonerated him from any wrongdoing, a large section of the population continues to view him as being culpable. The United States themselves revoked his visa privileges in 2005 because of his perceived role in the Gujarat riots of 2002. Indeed, a strong lobby continues to support this visa ban despite his exponential growth in popularity within the India.
If opinion polls are to be trusted (and this is a big if) Modi will likely become the next prime minister of the country. A significant proportion of India’s agitated voters have been led to believe that the 63-year-old veteran leader will dramatically change the face of India’s economic woes, waving his wand in Albus Dumbledore fashion. Such a view belies the complexity of India’s electoral history, where coalitions tend to be fragmented, consisting of diverse factions, regional and linguistic interests that play an important role in determining the winning coalition. Indeed, no scientific poll of any substantial sample can possibly reflect the intricacies of India’s elections, thus making Modi’s race to the helm of affairs quite dubious. He faces significant challenges in this election, which range from connecting with the very minorities (Muslims and Christians) that perceive him as being antagonistic to their interests. He will also have to convince the voter that he will be able to separate the hardline religious Hindu right from tampering his agenda for good governance. And lastly, he will have to project himself as the face of a resurgent India, with an agenda that promotes economic growth and job creation, and tackles the endemic inflation that brought the incumbent UPA down to its knees. The next one month will shape the course of Indian politics for the next few decades, almost considered in many ways as being the single most important election in the post independence India.
(Cover Image by Bharat Khokhani)