The latest general election in the world's largest democracy is now underway. Polls to determine India's new prime minister opened this past Monday, with nine polling days – scheduled over the next five weeks – set to accommodate 814 million registered voters across 930,000 polling stations. In case you can't already tell from those figures, it's the largest ever election in the history of the world.
The outright favourite is controversial 64-year-old Narendra Modi, representing the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP). The current Chief Minister of Gujarat state is seen as controversial because his – and his party's – ideology is based on the premise that India is a Hindu nation, meaning Hindus should come first. This, of course, is an outlook that marginalises the country's 138 million Muslims and 24 million Christians, as well as its dizzying panoply of minorities, including Dalits and Adivasis.
Modi’s critics highlight 2002’s Godhra riots in Gujarat – in which over 1,000 people, overwhelmingly Muslim, were murdered, and 200,000, again overwhelmingly Muslim, were displaced – as an example of the horrors of unchecked Hindu nationalism. However, #NaMo – as he's referred to on social media – has refused to address the violence during his campaign, instead talking the language that India's middle classes and industrialists want to hear – that of economic growth, infrastructure delivery, anti-corruption and good governance.
The alternatives for PM include Rahul Gandhi, 43, of the Indian National Congress (INC) party, which has been in power for the last decade. If Gandhi were to be elected, he would be the fourth generation of his family to lead India – following in the footsteps of great grandfather Nehru (India’s first PM), grandmother Indira Gandhi (assassinated in 1984) and dad Rajiv Gandhi (assassinated in 1991).
However, Gandhi is inexperienced, and there's popular opinion that it’s time for a change after Congress’ two terms – meaning he’s more being groomed for future elections than causing Modi too much worry for now. That said, the meteoric rise of anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejiriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man Party) – founded in November of 2012 – has the BJP candidate's supporters worried that the anti-Congress vote could be split.
One of the most striking aspects of this election is that young India will have the deciding say; 65 percent of India’s one billion citizens are under 35, and this election is the first for 100 million new voters. Another interesting quirk is the attention being paid to the election by members of the Indian diaspora living in the UK, who mostly won't be able to vote. Hindu nationalism is funded in part by money sent back to India by emigrants, and Indians in the UK will be hitting the phones to try and convince their relatives on the subcontinent to vote one way or the other.
I headed to Southall in West London, AKA “Little India”, to an event celebrating the life of Indian freedom fighter Shaheed Bhaghat Singh – organised in support of Modi and the BJP – to find out what members of the Indian diaspora think of the election.
First, I talked to Alpesh, a bookish 33-year-old from Gujarat who's currently working as a hotel supervisor. He believes that reinvigorating India’s stalled economy is key. “Modi and the BJP will deliver good governance – they are pro-development; that’s their main agenda," he said. "There was a time when India and China were competing economically, but now we are far behind. Modi has delivered economically in Gujarat, and we need that on a national level.”
And what about the Godhra riots of 2002? “There are so many factors as to why the riots happened," Alpesh answered. "There is lots of regret. It shouldn’t have happened. But it’s not justified to blame Modi, as he came to power a few months before the riots."
BJP Youth leader, 27-year-old Nachiket, has organised numerous pro-Modi events in London in the run up to the election, which have been attended by such luminaries as Barry Gardiner, MP for Brent North, and Virendra Sharma, MP for Ealing Southall. I asked him why he's so enthusiastic about Modi. “The BJP stands for development, good governance and security – they are the three basic needs for India,” he said, echoing Alpesh in a way that made me wonder if some kind of press line had been prepared.
“Modi is not doing religious politics. He is fighting corruption and wants to make India the world’s number one country, so he is a hero already," he continued. "Previously, we called India 'Sona ki chidiya' [The Golden Bird], and with Modi these days will return. Modi is a ‘Krantikari’ [revolutionary], and he will get Kashmir back, he will not allow Pakistan to interfere in India and he will not allow China to take our border inch by inch."
Next, I talked to 28-year-old Twisha. She said, "I’m not affiliated to any party, but given Modi and the BJP’s record of economic development and women’s safety in Gujarat, Modi is the best candidate – these two issues are critical."
She then began to talk about the Congress party. "They have been in power for ten years, during which there's been inflation and so many corruption scandals: the "Coalgate", mobile phone 2G and Commonwealth Games scams," she said, shaking her head. "Congress have made politics into a family firm – Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and now Rahul Gandhi. India should not have dynastic politics."
For many young Indians, there is a growing sense of frustration at the lack of choice when it comes to political candidates. I spoke to a few over the phone. Rukmini – a postgraduate student in Delhi – who told me: “My life is a fractured existence between murderous-Modi and imbecile-Rahul. What scares me is the sheer number of my friends who believe in Modi’s philosophy. The fact that there are people who are uncritically prepared to accept a leader with an alleged history of genocide makes me think it’s because there’s a lack of choice."
Shaleen, a 21-year-old who works in museum management in Delhi, is considering using the “None of the Above” (NOTA) option, which is available for the first time ever. “I would like a secular leader so every minority in India feels safe," she said. "It’s an ideal on which this country was built, and Modi does not inspire that confidence.
"This does not mean I support Rahul Gandhi – his lack of eruditeness makes me fear an inexperienced head of state; he'll be a puppet, like our current prime minister," she continued. "I'm ambivalent about the Aam Aadmi Party, due to its poor performance in governing Delhi – so NOTA seems the best option. Though, sadly, it will not lead to a re-run of the election should there be a majority NOTA vote."
Aashi, a 27-year-old writer, translator and LGBT activist from London, thinks Modi’s election would be a disaster for India’s LGBTQ communities, especially after the reintroduction of Sec377 – which outlaws gay sex – in December of 2013. "I am disgusted by the BJP’s determination to keep homosexuality criminalised," she said. "Religious leaders such as Baba Ramdev, who claims homosexuality is ‘unnatural’ and a ‘bad addiction’, are backed up by the BJP."
There’s little doubt that Modi has framed the narrative for the election. For many Indians looking longingly over the garden fence at autocratic China’s rapid development, there is only one candidate for a no-nonsense, charismatic leader who promises growth and clean government (and who won’t take shit from Pakistan, China or America): Narendra Modi.
Is India about to embark on a very rocky road, signposted by the politics of division and neo-liberalism? Or are we witnessing the overdue formation of a mainstream alternative to Congress, which has ruled India for 52 of its 66 years since independence?
We – and one seventh of the world's population – are about to find out.