The largest polling exercise ever has just begun. It is a proud moment for all Indians, in India and abroad. Over the next month or so, the world’s biggest democracy will see a high proportion of its 814 million potential voters — almost three times the population of the USA — casting their ballots in 1.7 million electronic voting machines (EVMs) across 930,000 polling stations to elect 543 members to the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of the Indian Parliament.
Indians will be even prouder if the elections are completely fair and free from violence. In the past, the electoral process has often been vitiated by a degree of skullduggery in lawless areas and rigged elections have sometimes taken place where candidates depend on muscle power (a number of candidates in the current election have criminal records). However, thanks to the tamper-proof EVMs and a more efficient bipartisan Election Commission, rigging or the use of unfair practices has become relatively rare. But the danger of violence, ironically in the land of that great apostle of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, persists.
With the ageing Dr Manmohan Singh declaring that he will step down, whatever be the outcome of the election, India is likely to witness the coming to power of a Prime Minister born after Indian independence (1947). Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the Opposition BharatiyaD Janata Party (BJP), and Rahul Gandhi, Vice-President of the Congress Party, are in their early 60s and 40s respectively. More than that, this will be a youthful election: 52 per cent of the electorate is between 18 and 40 years of age and as many as 120 million will be first-time voters.
The magic number of seats is 272, for a majority in the Lok Sabha. No single party is expected to reach this figure. But opinion polls indicate that the BJP should get around 200 seats. If is does, that would be its largest number since it was formed. The Congress is likely to emerge as the second largest party, again according to the polls, with less than 100 seats. The key is how the large northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which together send 120 representatives to the Lok Sabha, will vote.
There are other important regional players, the most colourful and mercurial being the three formidable ladies: J. Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and Mayawati in UP. These “queens” could be “king-makers” in the post-election scenario.
But there is a new kid on the block: the Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) Party (AAP), led by a former civil servant, Arvind Kejriwal. Of very recent formation and riding on the shoulders of Gandhian social reformer Anna Hazare, it made a stunning debut in Delhi, winning 28 out of the 70 Assembly seats and forming the Government there. However, that government lasted just 49 days and the abrupt way Kejriwal resigned has disappointed his supporters. He has gone national for the current general election, putting up 400 AAP candidates, which means he has spread his party too thin and is not expected to win more than a few seats.
Nevertheless, the AAP has radically altered the Indian political landscape by putting the issue of corruption and good governance at the top of the country’s agenda. That is exactly where Modi resonates, especially with the urbanites and the upwardly mobile young. He has a clean image and his record of governing his state of Gujarat during the ten years he has been in power there has been impressive. The only blemish — and a glaring one — is the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in which he has been accused of not doing enough to stop them. He has improved the State’s infrastructure by building good roads, more ports and bringing electricity to a greater number of villages. Large business houses, like the Ambanis, the Adanis and the Tatas, have invested heavily in Gujarat, though that has led to charges of “crony capitalism”.
Be that as it may, “crony capitalism”, say his supporters, is any day better than the succession of massive corruption scams that bedeviled the Congress Party in the last four years of its rule. Above all, there is a widespread feeling that India needs a strong and decisive leader, which is what Modi promises to be and where Manmohan Singh lamentably failed. The census of 2011 showed how India has changed since the onset of this century. As journalist Anil Padmanabhan put it well: “People who were walking to work are now cycling to work; those who were cycling now ride a two-wheeler; and those with two-wheelers have upgraded to cars (at least some of them have).”
So, in the ten years of its rule, the Congress achieved a great deal for an India on the move. But it has not been enough and the country now clearly wants a change. How much of a change will be revealed on May 16 when the election results start pouring in.
Rahul Singh is the former Editor of Reader’s Digest, Indian Express and Khaleej Times