Jai Ho: A look at the Indian elections

Thursday, 8 May, 2014

As you may be aware, India is currently staging the biggest democratic election in the history of the world. 814 million voters will voice their opinion in nine stages of voting, taking place over more than a month.

But are you clueless as to the state of Indian politics? Here’s a summary of the situation.

The Indian National Congress has been in power for the majority of time since India gained independence in 1947, and is the current incumbent government of ten years. Congress, usually led by someone from the Gandhi or Nehru families, is generally characterised by (Mahatma) Gandhi-style socialism, effectively aiming for economic equality and welfare for the lower classes. The gradual achievement of this goal in the past decade has come with a gentle push towards the economic right, which would seem appealing for Congress in the current climate if it weren’t that most people seem disillusioned with the party’s recent history of corruption and bureaucracy.

In fact, this anti-incumbency vibe has been the primary source of buzz surrounding India’s current political superstar, Narendra Modi. As prime ministerial candidate for the opposing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), his face is everywhere. On billboards, on television, on stickers in restaurants; it seems like almost everybody loves him.

The reason is simple – Modi promises change.

More specifically, economic change. Appealing to India’s rising middle class, Modi champions unrestricted business, hoping as well to make India a more enticing location for foreign investors. The BJP blame the past decade’s 3.5% fall in growth on Congress’ indecisive administration, with Modi’s successes as Gujarat’s Chief Minister often given as proof that he can do better.

The BJP also promise to reduce bureaucracy, and restructure the legislative process to make change more efficient. But as The Economist has pointed out, the party hasn’t explained how exactly they hope to achieve this. In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, I spoke to politically neutral entrepreneur Samarth Jairaman, who offered his commentary on the election campaign.

“Modi has a tendency to employ populist ideas like these,” said Jairaman. “Efficiency is only achieved when both parties are willing to compromise. This kind of belligerence just obscures the actually important issues.” Jairaman cited the expense of healthcare for lower classes, and the lack of standard and regularly updated educational curriculums, as being more relevant to the typical Indian citizen. Both healthcare and the majority of educational facilities are privatised in India.

But even if the ‘real’ issues are on the back burner, there is a general sense that the 2014 election is a significant one. The introduction of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) from Delhi has added to the idealistic fervour. Meaning “common man’s party”, the group’s primary aim is to ‘sweep out’ corruption from the house of politics, hence their emblem of a household broom. With the growing importance of corporate players on the political stage, it’s an issue worth taking seriously. Leader Arvind Kejriwal has been apt to point out not only Congress’s faults, but those of the BJP and the media at large, while the AAP takes the high road.

Supporters often refer to the spurious histories of BJP and Congress candidates – as it happens, 17 out of BJP’s 53 candidates and 11 of Congress’s 39 have declared a criminal history in election affidavits. This is the kind of anti-mainstream thing you see being shared on Facebook. Followers of Kejriwal’s Twitter account find plenty of other ways to criticise the major parties, whether it’s shady associations with corporate bodies or leaked evidence of hidden political motives.

Twice in his campaign, the AAP candidate has been physically attacked. In late March, he was punched in the neck while being driven through a crowd of supporters. Those supporters swiftly pinned the attacker down and beat him in retribution. Kejriwal was fast to chastise his followers via Twitter: “@ArvindKejriwal: I am deeply hurt by the reaction of our supporters. If we also react violently, then what is the difference betn them n us?”

The episode is reminiscent of certain scenes in Gandhi’s own quest for non-violence in the independence movement, although the AAP arguably don’t have as strong a cause to rally arms around. Right-wing newspaper The Hindu has accused them of righteous posturing more than actually deciding on policy (among other, more hyperbolic claims). But even so, their given stance of transparency and moral consistency is to many a welcome relief in the swirling discourse of Indian politics. If they can win some representation in the lower house, the Lok Sabha, they can possibly become a mediating force between the larger players.

There are other small parties, and in many smaller states such as Kerala, the winning party may likely be neither Congress nor BJP but a socialist third. For this reason, coalitions are always an important factor in determining outcomes – the BJP were also expected to win in the last election. But if anything positive seems to be ubiquitous in the campaigning, it’s the push for economic growth. For a country that for many is still synonymous with slums and poverty, a richer nation surely can’t be too much of a bad thing.