On Monday, voters in parts of Assam and Tripura, in India’s distant northeast, went to the polls. This marks the beginning of an election that will last an entire month and in which a total of 814 million people can vote, including 120 million for the first time. Reuters reports from Assam:
We need a change, someone who will come and change the whole scenario,” said handbag shop manager Ashim Sarkar, 35, lining up soon after voting started at 0700 IST.During high-octane campaigning at well attended rallies through the length and breadth of India, [Narendra] Modi [the opposition’s prime minister candidate] has been promising just that change – to jumpstart a flagging economy and sweep out the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has ruled India for most of the period since independence in 1947.
The fractious nature of Indian politics means that it’s highly unlikely that any party will get an outright majority in parliament. But Modi’s party, the Hindu nationalist BJP, is widely tipped to defeat the unpopular incumbent Congress party and form a coalition government with Modi as Prime Minister.Modi has mostly campaigned on pro-business policies and his record in Gujarat, a state that has had high levels of growth and development during his tenure as Chief Minister. Surprisingly, he has not campaigned on policy; the BJP only released its manifesto the day the election began. The timing is indicative of how unnecessary it has been for Modi to make any concrete election promises, given what an awful campaign Congress has run.Modi’s campaign has sought to characterize him as efficient, pro-business, honest, and capable of bringing India’s sagging economy back on track. He has attacked Congress for being corrupt and out of touch with voters. He emphasized his reputation as an outsider and a self-made man (he was once a tea seller) to stand in stark contrast to Congress’s dynastic privileges.The BJP’s 52-page manifesto echoes Modi’s campaign. It’s light on specifics and caters to right-wing Hindus, but it also adds important caveats to the more divisive policies and focuses specifically on uplifting India’s economy. The BJP will seek to pursue “friendly relations with neighbors and at the same time not hesitate from taking strong stand when required,” which seems to allude to India’s sometimes fraught relations with China. The party will welcome investment in all parts of the economy “except multi-brand retail.” Small business owners and retailers, especially in Delhi, have opposed allowing big retailers like Walmart to come to India, despite the money those retailers would bring in, and the issue is still a contentious one. The manifesto also promises to decrease the slaughter of cows, sacred in Hinduism, something that might be difficult to address given that India is the second-largest exporter of beef in the world. The manifesto also caters to BJP’s conservative Hindu base by promising to build a temple in Ayodhya, allegedly the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. A Mughal-era mosque that once stood on the site was burnt down by Hindu extremists in 1992, sparking sectarian riots that killed about 2,000 people. The temple construction plans remain a bitterly divisive issue for Indian Muslims and Hindus.There is always an ugly and divisive religious twang to Indian politics, and this year is no different. The police recently lodged a complaint against Amit Shah, the BJP’s general secretary, accusing him of using hateful speech to promote “enmity between different groups.” Shah tried to portray this election as one of “revenge.” The BJP, not surprisingly, complained that the complaint was politically motivated. India’s Muslims have received few assurances from Modi that they will be safe under his rule; they are no doubt hoping that the BJP keeps to the trend by which parties campaign on the fringes but drift toward the center once in office.