x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

India’s election will be democracy’s unmissable event

The biggest act of democracy in human history will begin in India next month, and Priya Virmani seeks to predict the ramifications.

Between April 7 and May 11, 814 million Indians will go to the polls. With 100 million more voters than at the last general election, in 2009, and 12 million poll officials, it will be the largest voting exercise any democratic nation has ever under­taken.

An unprecedented number of women and young people are expected to participate, with the Election Commission of India estimating that there will be 150 million first-time voters. Pundits expect that more women will vote on the strength of their own judgement rather than follow the party preferences of the men in their families.

Another change this time is the implementation of a long-overdue rule that candidates declare their foreign bank accounts, although it is questionable whether this will be effective in providing more transparency about their financial interests. The Election Commission has also introduced a new voting option, where voters can opt for “none of the above” to register their dissatisfaction with all candidates.

Swagger and stature are all important in Indian elections, so the campaign trail will see a lot of bustle and deafening noise over the next few weeks. But what will make this election the most fascinating India has seen in the 67 years since independence is the way the voters view the three main political parties.

The diversity of India’s 1.25 billion people is staggering, but what binds its people together is aspiration: the collective demand that things get better. Since 1991, the watershed year that saw India liberalise, the national narrative has been about aspiration, of upward economic mobility that has challenged entrenched and abhorrent social practices such as the caste system.

Indians had become accustomed to the belief that things would keep getting better. Then, when the economic crisis hit, and it was made indigestibly worse by a series of seismic corruption scandals. This gave fuel to restlessness among Indians across the spectrum; a restlessness that will play out at the ballot box.

No single party is expected to achieve the magical number of 272 seats – half of the available seats in parliament and the number required to form a stable one-party government. The outcome is almost certain to be give rise to a coalition, with the party with the largest number of seats scrambling to carve out a chaotic alliance with parties from multifarious regional political outfits – each of which will come with a boisterous ideology and loyalty to its state-based constituency at the expense of the national imagination.

This time, the two traditional goliathan parties – Congress and the BJP (the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Indian People’s Party) – will share centre stage with a new player, the AAP (Aam Aadmi or Common Man’s Party).

The incumbent Congress party has lost its lustre. Led by the Gandhi dynasty, it has been in power since 2004, and it is facing its biggest challenge since then.

Thanks to the vigour of the Indian media and new regulations on government transparency, including the Right to Information Act, corruption scandals of hitherto unseen proportions have been revealed. This Pandora’s Box was opened at the same time as the economy began a downward spiral.

Just as double-digit growth figures were predicted, there was a spectacular fall to the single digit category. A weakening of the rupee, inflation and capital flight exacerbated the situation. Anger and frustration grew: industrialists complained that manufacturing was suffering and infrastructure growth was stagnant; middle India saw job cuts and reduced wage differentials; and Indians lower down the socio-economic ladder found that basic commodities were becoming unaffordable. Anti-incumbency sentiment, accordingly, is at its peak.

The BJP, led by a polarising, pro-capitalist figure in Narendra Modi, anticipates a return to power. Mr Modi is being projected as a pan-India leader of a kind that India has not seen since his BJP predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, first became prime minister in 1996.

Mr Modi is a three-time chief minister of the western state of Gujarat. Under his watch, Gujarat has gained a reputation for being India’s most investment-friendly State. However, Gujaratis have always been known for their entrepreneurial spirit so, arguably, it was easy for Mr Modi to take it further along this path. Whether he will be able to achieve similar success with states such as West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, which are mired in poverty, is another story.

AAP, the third political party in the reckoning, entered politics with a bang. Born in 2012, on the back of an anti-corruption movement, it made a stunning debut by winning the New Delhi elections last year. Led by Arvind Kejriwal, a maverick who has courageously exposed the excesses of India’s rich and powerful, it won power in the capital on an extremely modest election budget.

But when Mr Kejriwal relinquished governing Delhi on Valentine’s Day in an act of “sacrifice” over the hindering of his party’s efforts to create an anti-graft ombudsman, the party’s better-educated, urban supporters became disillusioned. Nevertheless, he believes his continued efforts to highlight the financial irregularities of politicians including Mr Modi will translate into votes at the federal level. His party is likely to make inroads but the prize of governance seems set for the BJP.

The outcome of this election will say a lot about the Indian people, and will mean a lot to them. It will be an unmissable event.

Priya Virmani is a political and economic commentator based in London