India decides: Behind the scenes on the world's biggest election

The most dramatic and divisive Indian election for decades is finally drawing to a close. Narendra Modi may be the favourite to win the poll, but ordinary Indians have cast doubt over the ability of any party to bring the country’s problems truly under control.
By Courtney Trenwith
Sun 11 May 2014 09:37 AM

It’s the world’s largest democratic election. More than 814 million voters across 543 constituencies – so large it’s held in nine phases spanning more than a month. Almost half a million Indians have voted from the Gulf, one of the country’s largest sources of remittances.

With the second-biggest population and one of the most significant emerging economies, India’s election is not one many can afford to ignore. And now, only days until the results of the 16th national election for the Lok Sabha - or the lower house of the national parliament - are announced on May 16, it is time to sit up and watch.

And what a show it has been. India has had everything an election could possibly throw up. Celebrities, including former cricket heroes (who are literally worshipped in this cricket-crazy country), movie stars and top businessmen have entered the fray; candidates, including prime ministerial, have been assaulted; plush multi-million-rupee campaign vans have been revealed; scores of voters have complained their names are missing from the electoral roll or polling machines have broken down; and, tragically, religious violence has killed dozens.

There are several firsts as well too. More than 100 million people have been eligible to vote for the first time; a third party is threatening to make forming an outright government nearly impossible; a “none of the above” option has been added to ballot papers; and slick advertising campaigns have transformed the election into a presidential-style race.

This is the longest and most expensive election in India’s history, with the Election Commission of India estimating the total bill will add up to $577m just to run the polling. Such is the security drain, the national cricket competition, the IPL, has been played abroad.

Political parties have spent $5bn on campaigning, according to the Centre for Media Studies, the second-largest total in world history, behind only the $7bn American election in 2012.

In tune with the surge in spending, this election has been far more akin to a US presidential campaign than the Indian Westminster system that usually sees the contest played out between parties.

The hefty budgets and man-versus-man campaigning has been pushed by the business-backed opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has pitted its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi against the Indian National Congress’ Rahul Gandhi.

As is customary, the Congress has not officially declared that Gandhi will be prime minister if the party wins power. The 44-year-old, whose mother Sonia is the party president and grandmother Indira Gandhi and father Rajiv Gandhi were former prime ministers (both of whom were assassinated), seems uncomfortable in the personal face-off with Modi.  He has made far fewer public and media appearances compared to the controversial, yet dominating, 63-year-old Modi.

A candidate from a third leading party described Modi’s campaign to Arabian Business as “dirty, destructive, megalomaniacal, very dangerous”.

But according to every poll published, the right-wing, Hindu nationalist BJP will oust the Congress party. What remains to be seen is whether the BJP can gain the 272 seats needed to form government single-handedly, and if not, who it will align with to form a coalition.

India’s parliament has been historically dominated by two opposing alliances: the United Progressive Alliance (UOA), led by the Congress, and the National Democratic Alliance, led by the BJP.

The Congress, according to polls and commentators, is facing its worst election defeat in its history. Led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, one of the most influential in world politics, it has ruled for 56 of the 66 years since independence in 1947, including the past decade. But this election it has struggled to showcase its achievements and its centre-left policies such as subsidies are losing their appeal with a population looking towards development rather than handouts.

The current government, led by retiring Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who as finance minister in 1991 led the country’s economic liberalisation, has been marred by persistent corruption allegations and a failure to contain rising inflation and a halving of economic growth.

On the other hand, Modi has seen as the man who has redeveloped the economy of the western state of Gujarat, where he has been chief minister since 2001. The state has recorded the highest double-digit growth in the country, attracting foreign direct investment that has helped dramatically boost industry and create jobs. Millions of other Indians are wanting the same benefits.

In Mumbai, just south of Gujarat, 40-year-old Rajesh Nagrani, who owns an electronics business, says the BJP will “definitely” win nationally because Indians want economic development.

“We need a change, a lot of things have to be improved,” he says, eating lunch prepared by his wife in their humble apartment. “The Congress has been ruling for the last 10 years; we cannot see any progress. There’s no infrastructure. That’s the reason people, especially the young, are migrating to the US, the UK, even Australia. If they’re working in another country that means that particular country is progressing and we’re not.

“[Modi] has done a lot of things for his state, Gujarat, so definitely if he becomes prime minister, he’ll do a lot of things great for the country.”

But many also accuse Modi of encouraging the 2002 Gujarat riots in which hundreds of Muslims were killed. He was never incriminated but his Hindu nationalist comments have led to criticism he will inflame religious tensions in the country.

Modi has toned down the Hindu rhetoric during the election campaign, instead emphasising his economic record.

“What Modi has become a metaphor for is aspiration,” Indian political and economic commentator Priya Virmani says. “This is not that people are voting for a figure such as Modi…rather, people are voting for things like growth, good governance and good development, under which he seems to have the best track record against the other candidates.”

But for the first time in Indian national politics, a third party has become a dominant force capable of throwing a spanner in the works. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) – or Common Man Party – has literally blasted onto the scene, taking office in the capital, Delhi, in less than a year.

Led by Arvind Kejriwal, 45, the AAP ousted the powerful Congress party leader Sheila Dikshit, who had led the state for three terms. The shock win has given the newcomer the wind needed to spread its wings nationally.

But, perhaps a result of his inexperience, Kejriwal quit as chief minister after only 49 days when parliament blocked his anti-corruption bill. He said he could not operate effectively in a hostile parliament but the move has opened him up to criticism of not being able to handle the going when it gets tough. Indeed, Modi himself has since referred to the AAP as the “AK49 party”.

That still hasn’t stopped the AAP from making inroads in several areas, accusing both the Congress and the BJP of corruption, as well as claiming Modi will create religious divides while Gandhi is an ineffectual puppet of dynastic politics.

“For the very first time, a third party has made inroads into the national imagination in a short space of time,” Virmani says.

“What is remarkable about the AAP is that they have expanded and scaled on a shoe-string budget [of] $2.6m. Obviously that’s because they’ve been able to make inroads into the imagination of the country in ways that are novel and unprecedented, not just for India but for the 21st century, one could argue.”

Some are looking to the AAP as a vote for change without having to back a Hindu nationalist agenda propped up by rich industrialists.

An illiterate Hindu driver in Delhi says the AAP deserves a second chance.

“[Kejriwal] made a wrong decision [when he quit as chief minister]. But I think give another chance to the AAP party, he’s the right person,” the middle-aged man says.

“BJP is a religious party; always [Modi] says that we believe in Hinduism. I am also Hindu [but] he’s very, very arrogant; he thinks that we don’t like the Muslims but India is a secular country so every person has their fundamental right [to follow their own religion]. It does not mean that every Muslim is a wrong guy - I don’t think that every Hindu is a right guy.

“The people in that party [the BJP] are very, very rich. The BJP belongs to the businessman, so I cannot think that he will do very well [for middle- and lower-class Indians], that’s why I didn’t vote for him.”

Activist and professional dancer Mallika Sarabhai contested the Lok Sabha seat of Gandhinagar in Gujarat in 2009 as an independent. In January, she joined the AAP. Despite coming from Gujarat, where Modi is purported to have transformed the state, Sarabhai vehemently opposes him.

“AAP has a kernel of the possibility of a different way of thinking,” she says, explaining her decision to join the party.

“I believe a Modi government will lead to more power to the [fundamentalist Hindu organisations] RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh], Bajrang Dal, VHP [Vishva Hindu Parishad] and outfits like that, that are repressive, un-democratic, xenophobic and anti-pluralistic. This will destroy the idea of India and put women back decades.

“With Rahul, it depends on his team. But I would prefer a bumbler to a megalomaniacal despot.”

The strong anti-incumbency wave is thought to be behind a large increase in voter turnout. After the first seven phases of voting, 66 percent of constituents had participated, more than the 64 percent record set in 1984 and a significant eight percentage points above the 56 percent in 2009.

In Bangalore, an auto driver proudly raises his hand to reveal the trademark ink stamped on each voter’s right index finger. “I voted for Congress,” the Muslim father of three says. “Ninety-nine percent of Muslims will vote for Congress.”

He was born and raised in Bangalore, the poster child of India’s rapid urbanisation in the past 20 years. The city’s population has doubled since 2001, by far the highest rate among metropolitan areas, in the process becoming a bona fide global technology hub.

But the auto driver is one of the original inhabitants that have been left behind economically and now complain of traffic jams and high costs, while trying to squeeze even an extra 50 rupees (less than $1) from customers. But voting for the Hindu nationalist BJP is out of the question, he says.

Appealing to voters on a national scale in India is no easy task. Hence, regional parties play a key role in forming government and opposition alliances.

Among the population of 1.2 billion, the government estimates 270 million live in poverty. There are also vast cultural and genetic differences across the country, with hundreds of local dialects and possibly every religion under the sun represented even on a minor scale.

India is also rapidly urbanising. Official statistics, from 2008, are outdated but observers on the ground say villagers, particularly the young, are increasingly abandoning their fields, at least for part of the year, to look for work.

Virmani says the number of young shifting from rural to urban areas is “accelerating by the hour”.

Youth are becoming more educated – and more connected. More people have mobile phones than don’t, even in rural areas, and satellite dishes stick out from even the tin roofs of slums, still blended in between high rises and highways in large cities, despite government efforts to re-house the millions living in them.

Technology has influenced a significant change in campaigning. As well as attending as many boisterous rallies as possible, particularly in rural areas where a candidate’s presence is still highly influential, TV has become a dominant platform. Social media is gaining popularity, although it has not yet reached the same penetration levels as TV.

The youth bulge in India is dramatic. Not only is half the country’s population aged under 26, young voters – who make up about one in seven - were born in the post-liberalisation era and expect opportunities and development. The shrinking of economic growth in the past two years (it’s at less than 5 percent compared to 8-9 percent in the decade before 2011), is unacceptable to them.

Caste and religion also mean far less to 20-somethings who are more interested in gaining a job and creating a decent future, compared to older generations accustomed to supporting the man who either represents their caste or is backed by their caste leader.

“[The youth] were born in post-liberalised India...they grew up to expect and want an India that constantly gets better, and then in 2011, just when they were about to hit the job market, just when they’re ready to create better lives for themselves, the lifestyles that they’ve all been brought up on is all shattered in a sense,” Virmani says.

Among the first-time voters is 38-year-old Cooch. A Bangalore white-collar worker, he hasn’t felt the need to participate in the voluntary elections, until now. He’s one of many caught up in the anti-incumbency wave.

“The Congress has brought in FDI [foreign direct investment] etcetera and it’s all been going smoothly but now Congress doesn’t have leadership,” he points out.

But his friend, Arun, has a very different view.

“I have an underlying worry about Modi; he’s a fascist and I worry about what he’ll do to the country if he becomes prime minister,” Arun says.

The answer to that scenario may not be far away, if the polls are to be believed. But the polls have been wrong before, as recently as 2009 when they suggested the Congress would be booted from government. Instead the party increased its seats by 60.

There is just one phase of voting to go, on May 12. But it is the most anticipated. Modi, who is contesting two seats, will face Kejriwal in the holy city of Varanasi. Whoever wins it will have a remarkable imprint on the memories of this election: a Modi victory will likely dampen the story of the most successful third party in Indian politics in years, while a Kejriwal win will underscore a deeply dissatisfied but polarised Indian electorate.

One thing is for sure, the rapidly changing demographics of India mean whoever forms the government on May 16 cannot chance complacency. The pace and dynamics of Indian politics has changed forever. Results will need to be produced quickly and continuously or this election’s winner may become the next loser.

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