India's Elections: A Global Event
As 814 million Indian citizens head to the polls to participate in what has become the world’s biggest exercise in democracy, the immediate fate of India, and the world, hangs in the balance. With the elections playing a crucial role in the future of India, the outcome will have a decisive impact on India’s economic trajectory and future Indo-US relations. The election pits the ruling Indian National Congress’s Rahul Gandhi against Narendra Modi, the candidate of the main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The winner, regardless of the party they are affiliated with, will have to accomplish the arduous task of placing India on a trajectory conducive to prosperity and growth.
Problems with Congress
Congress swept to power in 2004 under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi and has maintained the majority vote for over a decade. However, a stalling economy, numerous corruption scandals, and a perceived lack of direction have left many Indians craving for change. With congress largely held responsible for the debilitating problems that have plagued India for the past decade, Rahul Gandhi is the inevitable underdog in the 2014 elections.
Growth has fallen 5%, which is too low to provide work for the millions of young Indians and leaves unemployment unchecked. With a plethora of villages across India lacking basic infrastructure and amenities, it’s undoubtedly evident that reforms remain undone and electricity seems to be a luxury that only the privileged can access. As a result of poor infrastructure, the illiterate population is growing at an alarming rate, one that can’t be dealt with unless sweeping reforms are implemented. Adding to the problems is widespread fraud and exploitation. Corruption, which seems to be the business of Indian politics and the face of Congress, has left citizens feeling hopeless because their “leaders” are busy taking bribes, and seem to be out of touch with reality.
Modi to the Rescue?
With a surplus of problems plaguing India under the current party’s rule, it’s no wonder that the overwhelming favorite to become India’s prime minister is the BJP’s Narendra Modi. Despite great support for Modi, many Indian citizens have criticized him. Modi is already a highly controversial figure due largely to events that took place in his state of Gujarat in 2002. As state minister, he was blamed for standing idly by while communal violence between Hindus and Muslims reached such a frenzy that more than 1,200 people died. News sources such as The Economist cannot bring themselves to support Modi’s charismatic personality and nationalistic views because they believe he should be judged by his record, which is that of a man who is still associated with sectarian hatred.
In spite of the criticism associated with Modi, his supporters counter that he offers a vision of prosperity for India, given that he engineered an economic renaissance in Gujarat. Pinaki Rath, a Modi supporter from Punjab said, “Criticism of Narendra Modi baffles me. Lifting the population out of economic misery is a bigger priority than the so-called concerns about Mr. Modi’s association with sectarian hatred.” Like Pinaki Rath, many Indian citizens have affirmed their support of Modi by explaining that his nationalistic policies can put an end to the years of corruption, scandals, food inflation, weakening currency, and economic sluggishness that has characterized Congress-led rule.
But Indians won’t be the only ones closely watching how events unfold over the next six months- the United States has also shown keen interest in who India chooses to be Prime Minister. Over the past 6 years, relations between the two great powers are at a low. In 2009, Obama said Indians “have no better friend” than the United States. President Obama predicted that India and the U.S. would form the “defining partnership of the 21st century.” Initially, Obama won Indian hearts, but today, the relationship has gone cold.
With talks of a G2, a mega-alliance between the US and China, India feels left out and jealous of China’s relationship with the U.S. The real low-point hit last year when an Indian diplomat was arrested in New York and strip-searched for allegedly underpaying her nanny. However, the sense of betrayal is mutual; Washington feels let down as well. First, when Russia annexed Crimea, India chose to side with Russia and not the U.S, a major blow to trust between the two countries. Additionally, when Washington sought to coalesce support for harsh sanctions against Iran, India decided to continue importing Iranian oil.
In spite of mutual betrayal, the lack of trust, and increased tensions, a recent Pew survey shows that Indians trust and like Americans. Approximately 56% of Indians express a favorable view of the United States, indicating that if Americans and Indians look to the future instead of the past, relations are still amendable. Ravi Agrawal, CNN’s India Bureau chief said, “These elections could be chance to reset a relationship that has been a bit troubled of late.” Whoever India’s next Prime Minister is, he or she has an opportunity to start afresh with the U.S.
These elections provide not only Indians, but the rest of the world a fresh start, especially given the impact India has on world economics. And fresh thinking will be required not just on the international front, but at home too. India has been plagued with a plethora of problems, everything from corruption to a floundering economy led by a government that many think has lost its way. The question now is whether Indians will take a chance with a relatively inexperienced leader who is associated with a party ridden with corruption or will they be inclined to vote for a dynamic regional politician who has empirically brought prosperity and economic growth to his state. “I think India has for far too long been on the cusp of something,” says Agarwal. “Indians here are now wondering, are we going to be China? Or are we going to be left languishing for many more years?”[Image Attribute: The Economist]