India holds its breath

The world’s biggest democracy deserves a leader with a strong mandate to govern. Unfortunately, it may not get what it deserves.
By Ed Attwood
Sun 11 May 2014 09:36 AM

It is rare that we dedicate an entire issue of Arabian Business to just one topic. Then again, this week is no ordinary week. This Friday, 16 May, India will announce the outcome of its general election, bringing to an end an astonishingly complex electoral process that has lasted for a month. Furious campaigning by party leaders and representatives has carried on for far longer than that, with candidates splurging some $5bn to get their message across to an electorate of over 800 million people. In terms of money spent on campaigning alone, it’s the second-biggest election in world history, behind only the US presidential poll two years ago.

I don’t intend to dwell too much more on the numbers here; they are covered in some detail elsewhere in this issue. My colleague Courtney Trenwith spent a week in India late last month, and has produced what I believe to be a pretty thorough assessment of where the world’s second-most populous country stands as it waits for the final decision.

In that week alone, Courtney seems to have given some of the candidates themselves a run for their money, travelling the length and breadth of India to canvass the opinions of a vast cross section of society – from the co-founder of one of the country’s most famous home-grown firms to a rickshaw driver in Bangalore. If, for example, you have ever wondered what a day on the campaign trail in the heart of rural Madhya Pradesh (one of India’s poorest states) is like, then you need look no further than this issue.

The polls suggest that Narendra Modi, the most controversial prime ministerial candidate ever put up for election, will win the popular vote. However, if Modi doesn’t hit the 277-seat target in the country’s lower parliament needed to form his own government, then he may find it impossible to build the kind of coalition that will allow him to push through the economic reforms he has promised. If that’s the case, then India may well be condemned to another five years of stagnant or non-existent decision-making. The economy will suffer, and India’s youth – its most important demographic and arguably its most important asset – will struggle to find jobs.

For Modi’s opponent, Rahul Gandhi, a political career that has never really exploded onto the national consciousness stands on the brink. He may be the son of Rajiv Gandhi, the grandson of Indira Gandhi and the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, but his biggest electoral asset right now is simply the fact that he is not his opponent. Gandhi will also be hoping that the rapid emergence of a third party, the Aaam Aadmi Party, can split the BJP vote. But his speeches have been stiff, and he looks laboured by comparison with Modi. It is hard to believe that a man with so little experience of executive power can truly get to grips with India’s manifold problems.

The next few pages provide a unique glimpse into what makes India such a vibrant nation, and why the outcome of these elections matter to everyone else on the planet. But as India starts on the next chapter of a history that spans five millennia, the hard work truly begins here. Whoever wins a mandate next week will suddenly find themselves with what many would argue is the toughest job in the world. As the countdown finally reaches its conclusion, India is holding its breath.

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Last Updated: Thu 26 Jan 2017 01:27 PM GST

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