India's election presents voters with a choice about the soul of their nation

As the world's largest democracy heads to the polls, its citizens are being asked to make a decision that reaches far beyond parliamentary politics

FILE PHOTO: A woman wearing a mask of Prime Minister Narendra Modi dances as she attends an election campaign rally being addressed by India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah at Ahatguri village in Morigaon district in the northeastern state of Assam, India, April 5, 2019. REUTERS/Anuwar Hazarika/File Photo
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Today the first phase of the Indian general election begins. On May 23, when the final votes are tallied, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party is hoping to make history, by becoming the first Indian leader not from the Congress Party to be returned to office after completing a full five-year term.

To give a brief statistical overview, since India gained independence from British rule in 1947, a total of 16 parliamentary elections have taken place. In this time, six Congress prime ministers have ruled, either alone or in coalition, for a total of 55 years. In the remaining 16 years, eight politicians from other parties have led coalition governments. But this year, Mr Modi is aiming to prove Congress does not have a monopoly on stability.

In 2014, Mr Modi was swept to power on promises of prosperity. Now he might wish for a second victory based on economic growth. However, the lives of many ordinary Indians have not improved under his leadership. Accordingly, he has left nothing to chance and led a singularly negative campaign, focused on division, fear and muscular Hindu nationalism.

Mr Modi’s main rival is Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party, whose platform combines a quasi-universal basic income programme, rolling back laws that curb civil liberties and the creation of employment opportunities. But Mr Gandhi has never held public office, and the BJP has portrayed him as a man of questionable competence and unquestionable privilege – the opposite of its own leader, who it presents as an accomplished man of the people. There are signs that public perception of Mr Gandhi has begun to shift – especially after Congress’s victory in three important state elections late last year, defeating incumbent BJP governments – but his party is far from the force it once was.

Five years ago, Mr Modi's central electoral plank was "sab ka sath, sab ka vikas" a united India can develop together. But the nation's economic development has not created much-needed jobs and poverty is still rife. Indian agriculture is in a parlous state, evidenced by mass farmers' protests last year. Small businesses are hampered by bureaucracy and many people are still struggling to recover from the currency shock of 2016, when Mr Modi withdrew high-value banknotes from circulation, in an effort to remove so-called "black money" from the economy.

And yet, many analysts believe that the BJP will likely achieve a parliamentary majority. Mr Modi’s image as a strong and decisive leader has been boosted by February’s retaliatory air strike on Pakistan, following a terrorist attack that killed 40 soldiers in Pulwama, Kashmir. Questions may have been raised about intelligence failures leading up to the attack and what the Indian counter-strike really achieved, but his actions have captured the public imagination.

In 2014, voters gravitated towards Mr Modi because they were angry, ground down by a sluggish economy and frustrated by the charges of corruption that had circulated around leaders of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in the latter part of its 10-year-rule. Mr Modi campaigned robustly and, crucially, attracted millions of new, young, aspirational voters.

This year, Mr Modi is aiming to prove that the opposition Congress party does not have a monopoly on political stability

By 2014, more than half of India’s population were under 25 years old. This year, approximately one-sixth of eligible voters will have been born after 1991, when the Congress-led government of PV Narasimha Rao deregulated the nation’s economy and opened it up to foreign investment.

Similarly, this is the first election in which people too young to remember the 2002 massacres of Muslims in Gujarat will be eligible to vote. These atrocities occurred on Mr Modi’s watch as the state’s chief minister, after months of rising tensions between Hindus and Muslims. The carnage went on for weeks and, by an official count, 1,044 people were killed. Human rights groups have criticised Mr Modi for failing to stop the violence and, for many years, the US refused to issue him a visa.

Mr Modi remained unapologetic and built a reputation as an enthusiastically pro-business minister, hosting high-profile investment summits and announcing major gas and power projects. Running his 2014 prime ministerial campaign along similar lines, the BJP’s share of the vote rose to 31 per cent, while Congress’s fell to 19 per cent. This made the BJP the first party since 1984 to secure a parliamentary majority, winning 282 of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, parliament's lower house.

But, in many ways, its recent economic performance has been pitiful. The Indian rupee has plummeted, and employment is in crisis, yet it is impossible to discern the true scale of the problem. More than 100 prominent economists have questioned the veracity of official figures and Raghuram Rajan, the former central banker of India, has called for an independent examination of the government's statistical methods.

Mr Modi’s 2014 victory also hinged upon pledges to end corruption and bring back Indian wealth held abroad illegally. He has failed to do any such thing. Three prominent businessmen – Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi (not related to Mr Modi), and Mehul Choksi – who owe vast sums to Indian banks, all managed to leave the country, and efforts to bring two of them back are now tied up in the courts. There are also concerns about political corruption, not least because of new rules that permit anonymous donations to parties in the form of opaque “electoral bonds”.

Meanwhile, Indian institutions are under siege. Scientific bodies have been asked to examine ancient Hindu texts, universities are being directed to ensure that doctoral research is in the “national interest”, and the legal system has faced so much external pressure that in January 2018 four supreme court judges called a press conference to express their concerns over judicial independence. Separately, but significantly, the Central Bureau of Investigation has also seen its credibility diminished after two senior law enforcement officers publicly accused each other of bribery and interference in politically significant inquiries.

All of this should be a PR disaster, but Mr Modi has two aces up his sleeve. Although he has never addressed a press conference as prime minister, most broadcast and print organisations have dispensed with real reporting and are now happy to publish flattering propaganda about him on a daily basis.

Then there are the hardline nationalists that form his base. They are particularly active on social media and specialise in abusing Dalits, Muslims, Christians, women’s rights activists, journalists and anyone critical of the government. Some of their targets have been threatened with rape and murder. Although such intimidation is illegal in India, the authorities have done little to stop it.

More serious is the physical violence some are capable of. In February, Human Rights Watch reported that 14 people have been killed in violent attacks linked to allegations of trading cattle or consuming beef – claims often made against Muslims. The accused in one such killing was pictured in the front row of a BJP rally recently.

One might think that all this would leave the field wide open for the opposition. After all, Indian voters often choose to unseat the nation’s ruling party. But the political map is now a mosaic.

Over recent years, Congress's influence has waned, with the upper-caste vote shifting towards the BJP and the lower-caste vote splintering. In many states, Congress is now the second or third-largest party, up against the BJP and strong regional parties such as West Bengal's Trinamool Congress, Uttar Pradesh's pro-Dalit Bahujan Samaj Party and Orissa's Biju Janata Dal. Congress won a mere 44 seats in 2014, and even the most optimistic projections doubt that its count will rise much beyond 100 this time around.

In recent weeks, the campaign period has taken a dark turn, with the government stoking fears of the catastrophe that awaits if the opposition wins. A Congress government would weaken India’s stance on terror, Mr Modi has said. BJP leaders have also claimed that Congress would “favour” Muslims. Younger BJP candidates have described those who oppose Mr Modi as “anti-national”, while an influential provincial leader has called the Indian armed forces “Mr Modi’s army”.

The challenge India faces now is about more than party politics. It must choose what kind of nation it wants to be – an inward-looking and bombastic Hindu state or an inclusive republic that celebrates its diversity. That this dismal scenario is playing out in the 150th year since the birth of Mohandas Gandhi, a man of peace who led the egalitarian and non-violent struggle to liberate India from British rule, now feels especially poignant.

Salil Tripathi is a contributing editor at Mint and The Caravan. He also chairs Pen International's writers-in-prison committee