The largest democratic election to ever take place is currently underway, but there’s a fair chance you have heard little about it. The Indian general elections to determine the next prime minister of the country as well as the composition of the lower house of parliament (called the Lok Sabha) began on April 7th, will continue until the 12th of May, and the winners will be announced on May 16th. In total there are more than 814 million eligible voters, which is over three times the amount of people eligible to vote in the United States’ 2012 presidential elections. Yet despite the scale and significance of these elections, they have attracted little attention outside of India itself.
Opposition candidate for prime minister Narendra Modi of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) may very well topple Rahul Gandhi, the candidate of the ruling Indian National Congress (commonly referred to as the Congress) which has been in power for the majority of India’s democratic history. Regardless of the results, huge changes are expected for the second most populous country in the world because of the swift rise of the BJP and Modi in contrast to the drop in popularity of the ruling coalition and Rahul Gandhi. The next prime minister’s term of five years will undoubtedly have a tremendous impact outside of India, though it has been largely overlooked thus far by Western media with the exception of the possible impact on financial markets.
The BJP is a Hindu-nationalist party and the more conservative of the two competing factions, contrasted with the liberal nationalist Congress which has been the largest and leading party of the ruling coalition since 2009. In fact, the Nehru-Gandhi family to which Rahul Gandhi belongs has dominated India’s political scene since independence in 1947, though popular discontent with the status quo and the lack of the party’s ability to improve their ruling image has eroded some of their support. Rahul Gandhi, referred to as ‘the reluctant prince,’ until recently played a back seat in politics and has been overshadowed by his family’s image and history.
Modi on the other hand, is a dynamic and controversial figure who has been praised for his economic growth as Chief Minister of the Gujarat state, but criticized for his handling of key events and lack of human rights development. During the 2002 riots in his home state of Gujarat that led to the deaths of hundreds via communal violence, Modi was lambasted for failing to curb the conflict and subsequently faced a special investigation. Though Modi was not convicted of any willful wrongdoing he was condemned internationally by countries like the US, UK and Pakistan. Despite these issues, Pakistan surprisingly endorsed him in the current election because they consider him a ‘strong leader,’ and Western countries have showed a willingness to work with Modi if he does indeed win.
Thus, the elections have been framed as being between a status quo and party line follower in Rahul Gandhi, or the riskier but economically savvy Narendra Modi. Modi on the world stage will almost assuredly be a more divisive figure in comparison to Gandhi or the outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Nonetheless, perhaps a greater foray onto the world stage could positively pay off for the country set to be the world’s most populous by 2028.
This election should not be forgotten as soon as the winner is announced. Indian politicians spent approximately $5 billion total on their campaigns, making it the second most expensive election of all time after the 2012 US presidential elections. The volatile relationship between India and Pakistan is a critical issue the next Indian leader in power must grapple with, as is managing the growth of one of the top ten largest economies in the world. India pursues a non-aligned and self-focused agenda, but its worldwide impact will continue to grow regardless of these goals.
There will be a new prime minister for 1.2 billion people on May 16th, though the US and West should not wait until then to start planning future cooperation with India. Preemptively strengthening ties and adapting to the new leadership early on are much more favorable actions that should be taken in order to avoid being caught flat-footed when issues may arise. India may not be the most active in terms of foreign affairs, but there are huge benefits to greater economic collaboration and human rights development possible in the years ahead.