Tomorrow, after a month of voting all over the country, India will announce its next prime minister. It has been exciting to witness this massive and historic election. It has made me think deeply about nature of India today and its imminent future. I will admit that I am no expert in Indian politics. While I have tried to follow the news, there is still so much context that I am continually learning. I therefore write this, not as an informed expert, but as a casual observer in awe of India’s colossal democracy.
Unlike in the U.S. I do not have much at stake in this election, so it has been interesting to just watch and to just ask the opinions of people I meet. Unlike in the U.S., politics is not such a touchy subject, when I ask people are more than willing to tell me who they voted for or what they think about the country’s situation.
This election is particularly exciting, because as the media harps, it is India’s first “presidential style election.” What that means is that this election is based more on the personalities of people poised to become prime minister. In the past, where voting was generally based more on issues or parties.
To give some background, since Independence, India has been primarily governed by the Congress party started by Mahatma Gandhi and India’s first prime minister, Jawarhal Nehru. The Congress party is primarily secular and somewhat left leaning. Since Independence there have also been various religious oriented parties, like the Bharatiya Janata Party that have campaigned for a India based on Hinduism. Aside from these two major parties, there are thousands of local parties who elect representatives that usually form alliances with the two major parties. In the past, people have often voted based on the local representatives and the platform they represent (or the money they give out to voters and outlandish promises that are made).
This election, however, is different, in large part because of the characters running for prime minister: Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal.
Modi is the main BJP candidate and he is a contentious character. People either fervently love him or strongly fear his ascension to power. He has an amazing rags to riches story: he was born to a low-caste family and sold tea at a train station with his father as a child. He was a volunteer for the RSS, another Hindu nationalist party from a young age and became a strategist for the BJP after finishing his education. He rose the ranks to become chief minister of Gujarat, but during the first few months of his term, some of the worst religious violence of India’s modern era occurred in Gujarat. Thousands of Muslims were killed In response to rumors that Muslims had burned a train car full of Hindu pilgrims. Modi was accused of doing little to stop the violence and even of condoning the violence and having direct involvement.
Despite this blight on his record, Modi has been known for his work to improve economic development in the state of Gujarat. He is said to have helped attract industries to Gujarat, reduce corruption and help improve the state’s infrastructure. While his record in Gujarat is also debatable, he is also quite popular because of his arousing speeches that move people to Modi bhakt (worship).
Rahul Gandhi, the Congress party candidate would be expected from historical experience to win this race. He is from the family that has produced India’s prime ministers since independence, when his great grandfather Jawarhal Nehru served as India’s beloved first prime minister.It would seem that he has a right to the throne, but India is quite tired of the Congress party. Many Indians I have talked with feel that the stagnated economic growth, corruption and high prices of goods is due to the Congress party’s poor leadership. Rahul Gandhi is also somewhat awkward and fails to really inspire anyone; many who are voting for Congress are doing so to counter Modi.
To add some masala to the curry pot, Arvind Kejriwal formed the Aam Aadmi party (the common man party) to protest the corruption in both the congress and BJP party. He worked for the Indian Revenue Service, and through grassroots initiatives worked to campaign against corruption in the government. In 2012, he launched the Aam Aadmi party as an anti-corruption alternative to Congress and BJP. He was elected as Chief Minister of Delhi. It surprised everyone to see someone from an outside party win such a huge seat. However, 40 days after entering office he resigned because the government failed to pass an anti-corruption bill. People either admire Kejriwal for sticking to his values or think he is a quitter who cannot be trusted to make the compromises and negotiations needed in a diverse government. He is now contesting for a seat in the parliament and campaigning to be considered for prime minister.
Everyone I have met seems to have strong opinions towards these candidates in one way or another. Both Modi and Kejriwal are immensely popular amongst many young people. As one girl said, “The only thing keeping India from becoming a superpower is its government, if India is governed well we can become a first world nation” Many young people see Modi as India’s opportunity to renew its economic growth that has stagnated over the past few years. Getting a good job has become ever harder for recent graduates. They see Modi as an opportunity to relive the years when companies competed for employees rather than the other way around. Others, who are not convinced of Modi’s rhetoric and are worried about his involvement in the Gujarat violence, believe in the idealism of Kejriwal and believe that he represents a commitment to morality that is missing from the current government.
Still, politics are heavily divided along sectarian lines. While much of the western and some of the Indian media raises concern that a Modi win could increase sectarian violence in India, many Hindus dismiss this as hype. Yet, the other day while sitting in the home of one of my Muslim research assistants, an ad for Congress came on T.V. I asked the teenage girl what she thought about the Congress party and she told me that “The Congress party does everything they say they are going to do” and that, “If Modi wins, there are definitely going to be fights between Hindus and Muslims.” I worry what a Modi win could mean for safety all over India, given that Muslim communities are already generally poorer and more marginalized.
The recent exit polls suggest a strong win for Modi, which does not surprise me. Many people I have talked to from auto drivers to my host family in Jaipur are tired of the increasingly high prices of goods and rampant corruption in the government; they want change from the old Congress establishment. If Modi does win, the election will mark a huge historic shift in India: a sharp and complete departure from the slowly eroding Gandhian ideals that founded the Congress party to a focus on neoliberal capitalism and modernization with Modi.
While I understand the frustrated Indian’s desire for such a shift, I can’t help but wonder what India is going to lose over the next decade. Will the local bazaars be replaced with giant Walmarts? Will even more farmers shift to work labor jobs in the cities after being displaced from their land? Will India continue to lose its age old medical and agricultural knowledge in favor of flashy technical advancements? I could continue to articulate my fears and questions, but this editorial does a much more beautiful and concise job: http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column-when-leaders-try-to-become-six-pack-technocrat-heroes-that-machismo-can-be-dangerous-1988370
No matter what happens, tomorrow will be a new and interesting day.