Reality behind the election rhetoric in India

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 April, 2014, 5:16am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 April, 2014, 5:16am

India's electoral landscape is so big and complex that predicting the outcome of national polls is next to impossible. As the first of nine stages of voting over five weeks began on Monday, opinion surveys put opposition Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra Modi as the front runner to be the next prime minister, ahead of Rahul Gandhi of the incumbent Congress party. But as neither of the nationwide groupings is likely to gain an outright majority, it is the myriad regional parties with which a coalition will have to be formed that hold the key to the shape and nature of the next government. That composition, perhaps more than personalities and track records, will determine domestic and foreign policy.

Until results are declared several days after vote-counting on May 16, speculation will be rife and there will be questions, hopes, concerns and worries for constituents, investors and other governments. Modi proudly calls himself a Hindu nationalist and won leadership of the BJP based on his strong economic record during 12 years as chief minister of the state of Gujarat. He comes from humble roots and fought his way to the top of politics through tenacity and ability. Gandhi is an unwilling politician and got to where he is through birth; he is the scion of India's first political family and the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's founding prime minister

A decade of Congress rule has left India in bad shape. Growth has fallen to about 5 per cent, far below what is needed to create jobs for a young population. The corruption of politicians and officials has robbed billions of dollars from the economy. India needs electricity, roads, running water and schools, but the reforms that will bring them about are held up by bureaucracy and political wrangling. Modi has won a legion of supporters for promising a radical overhaul of the economy.

But he is also a divisive figure, his still unexplained role in the slaughter of 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 leading to bans by Britain and the US that were only lifted in 2012. Courts have cleared him of wrongdoing, but allies were implicated. His foreign policy, especially towards China, is also unclear. While encouraging Chinese investors, he has pushed a tough line on territorial disputes, saying that on his watch, no nation would be allowed to take even an inch of land.

What is said in the heat of electioneering often has little to do with elected office. India's next leader will have to compromise and be pragmatic. Trade and diplomacy are the best ways to develop challenging relationships like that with Beijing.