In a process that is expected to last up to six weeks, 814 million Indians have begun voting for a new government. The country’s election represents the world’s largest democratic election – and the biggest recorded in history. It is expected to see voters kick out the incumbent Congress Party in favour of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Congress’s last decade as the ruling member of a coalition government has been beset by corruption scandals and criticisms of indecision. When the party returned to power after an eight-year absence in 2004, Congress was expected to oversee a period of record economic growth, establishing India as one of the leading global markets.
However, while growth has been relatively high, many see the last few years as a missed opportunity for India. Accusations of elitism have also beset the party, with the choice of Rahul Gandhi as its leader being seen as yet another example of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty carving up the political landscape for itself.
[Modi] even likened the suffering of Muslims as inconsequential as that of a puppy being run over
With voters fed up with Congress, the BJP are widely believed to seize control of government. Modi is seen as the most pro-business candidate around, with his governing of the state of Gujarat’s economy widely praised. However, he is also a hugely divisive figure, especially with the country’s large Muslim community.
His failure to condemn the anti-Muslim riots of 2002 in Gujarat that saw almost over a thousand people die have made him hugely unpopular with many. The vast majority of those that died were Muslim, and Modi has done little to assuage the community’s fears that a government led by him will do much to help them in the future.
He even likened the suffering of Muslims as inconsequential as that of a puppy being run over. Despite some backtracking, the offense has stuck. There are also concerns over what a Modi-led government would do for India’s already difficult relationship with Muslim-dominated neighbour Pakistan.
Certainly India needs to reform its immensely confusing bureaucracy if it is to match up with the loft expectations of many global economic observers. Investors across the world have for a long time wanted to see India rival China as Asia’s economic powerhouse, but corruption and heavy regulations have hampered its potential for too long.
However, it remains to be seen whether the social implications of such a divisive figure as Nahendra Modi will do more harm than good.