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Not Temples, But Toilets: A Look at India's Elections

With 543 parliamentary seats up for grabs and three contenders for prime minister, India is in the midst of six weeks of voting.

by Kishalay Bhattacharjee
Apr 11 2014, 12:15pm

Image via Re

It’s a bit of a cliché to tag the 2014 Indian general elections as the world’s largest exercise in democracy.

True, with around 814 million people eligible to vote, these elections could see the largest turn out ever, but probably not given that typically only around half will actually cast ballots.

Furthermore, in many ways the democratic process is less than fully functional: a significant number of voters will just follow directions from community, religious, or even military groups. In many areas, the democratic process is also compromised when vested groups lobbying for specific political parties pressure voters. Therefore, issues that otherwise impact daily lives directly are often marginalized.

The scale of the election arrangements, however, is mammoth: 5 million personnel across the country with an almost equal number of police and paramilitary forces to ensure polling goes smoothly. There are no paper ballots; electronic voting machines and polling booths have been set up throughout the nation, even at 16,000 feet above sea level. The process is so efficient that it defies the manner in which India otherwise operates — in near total chaos.

Nine rounds of polling will be conducted over six weeks stretching from the sensitive border states of India’s northeast to the bigger states in central India, the south, and the north. Votes for all 543 seats in the Lok Sabha (Indian parliament) will finally be counted on May 16.

But who are the candidates?

Narendra Modi, BJP

“Not temples, but toilets!” was how India’s most likely new prime minister, Narendra Modi, kicked off the high voltage 2014 Indian election campaign. Considering that for more than 20 years “temple” was the corner stone of his party’s political campaign, this slogan was pretty significant.

In 1992 the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist party. along with its ideological partners was held responsible for the demolition of Babri Masjid, a mosque in the temple town of Ayodhya in North India. This vandalism provoked countrywide riots between Hindus and Muslims. Since then, the BJP, which otherwise successfully headed a coalition government from 1999 to 2004, has been threatening to build a Ram temple where the mosque had existed, claiming that the site is the birthplace of a Hindu mythological figure. This issue polarized India on religious lines and changed the country’s political discourse.

But 2014 has seen the BJP turn its ambitions from the sacred to the scatalogical — replacing the temple plans with an offer of toilets. With half of India defecating in the open, this promise has been a perfect prelude to what is shaping up to be an unstoppable campaign, uncontested by any other political parties in size, drama, or expense. Mr. Modi alone orchestrated the tone and tenor. He decided that this would be his election and virtually anointed himself as the party’s prime ministerial candidate.

But who is Narendra Modi?

A former tea vendor on railway platforms in India’s western Gujarat region, Modi, now 63, rose through the BJP ranks on the basis of sheer managerial and administrative ability. In 2001 he was elected Chief Minister of Gujarat and has held the post for three subsequent terms. His agenda is focused on economic development, and he means business.

Unlike most other Indian politicians, he faces no allegations of corruption and is seen as a decisive leader. But his critics accuse him of having blood on his hands for having — at the very least — tolerated attacks against Muslims in 2002 in Gujarat after a fatal fire allegedly set by Muslims killed a train full of Hindu pilgrims.

Though India’s highest court has cleared him of charges, he has never apologized for the religious riots that killed civilians and tarnished his image, especially among India’s significant Muslim population.

His election campaign has been impeccable, guided by an impressive backroom team that decides what he should wear and what he should tweet. He has avoided any reference to the riots or the temple and has branded himself as the inevitable leader of a young India.

Given that in the next ten years, India with half of its 1.25 billion people under age 25 will require 500 million new jobs, he has pegged his campaigns around job creation. It’s no surprise that corporate India is backing Modi to the hilt.

Rahul Gandhi, Congress Party

Pitted against Modi is 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India’s “dynasty.” He’s the great grandson of the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, and father, Rajiv Gandhi, who were both killed in terrorist attacks, also led the country. He represents the Congress Party, which has been headed since 1998 by his Italian-born mother, Sonia Gandhi, who almost became prime minister in 2004.

Educated at Harvard and Cambridge, Rahul entered politics in 2004, when the party backed him for a safe seat to put him in the parliament. By 2007, he had been elevated to several senior positions and was elected the vice president of the Congress party. Despite his extraordinary pedigree and the full backing of the Congress Party, he has proven to be a lackluster candidate who has struggled to hold audiences — during a rally in New Delhi this year other politicians had to implore the crowd not to walk away during his speech.

Additionally, Gandhi, is commonly held responsible for the government’s abysmal performance during the last ten years, during which GDP has plummeted by half, legislative initiatives have stalled, and already prevalent corruption has been virtually institutionalized.

India today is an aspirational country where Rahul Gandhi’s entitlements have found little appeal among its 150 million young voters, who want gainful employment — and may well determine the election. The regional politics and sectarian appeals of the 1970s and ’80s have given way to the appeal of upward mobility.

Arvind Kejriwal, Aam Aadmi

Into this political slugfest between Modi and Rahul, there is a recent entrant: Arvind Kejriwal, a maverick civil servant. A 45-year-old Indian Revenue Service officer and winner of a Magsaysay Award for emergent leadership, Kejriwal is attempting to redefine the language of Indian politics with his populist Aaam Aadmi Party, which caught the imagination of a frustrated middle class and young Indians. Three years ago, Kejriwal spearheaded countrywide protests against corruption though his critics accuse him of hubris for claiming the moral high ground. However, this year, despite his party’s winning an impressive number of seats in local New Delhi elections, Kejriwal failed to form a coalition government and withdrew as the chief minister within 49 days.

With thousands of candidates vying for 543 parliamentary Lok Sabha seats, the next six weeks will surely be entertaining.