On April 7, India opens the polls for another of its uniquely epic elections. In nine stages of staggered voting that stretch into mid-May, allowing election officials, observers and law enforcement teams to move from place to place, 814 million voters are registered to cast ballots across a country one-third the size of the United States but with almost four times the population.
There are now 1.2 billion people in India, which is likely to overtake China as the world’s most populous country within a decade or two. Indian elections matter nationally and internationally because they signal the democratic electorate’s mood and influence future policies of a nation that is always teetering on the edge of greatness, but never immune to economic and social shocks often born of misgovernment or lax enforcement of laws.
The 2014 election, for 543 seats in the lower house of the Indian Parliament, from which a new prime minister and government will be drawn, has the potential to set a new course for the country. The Congress Party of modern India’s founders will have a new face, though whether it will be that of Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru and last (for the time being) of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, is in doubt; his public performance has been a disappointment. The current poll leader, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP) is an unabashed Hindu nationalist accused of condoning a 2002 pogrom in his state of Gujarat, where he is chief minister, in which upwards of 1,000 Muslims perished. He has been denied an American visa since 2005 on the ground of religious intolerance.
To complicate the election, and perhaps muddle its outcome, a populist third-party has entered the race, led by an erratic former civil servant on an anti-corruption, anti-establishment crusade. He is Arvind Kejirwal, who led his new Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party to a stunning upset victory in the Delhi capital region last year to become its chief minister—only to quit in a huff forty-nine days later because he wasn’t getting support for his program from other parties. Indian commentators have been mulling the possibility that he could deprive one traditional party or the other from a substantial enough lead to force a messy coalition government of national and regional parties, which in the past have made decisive governance difficult.
All of this leaves the Indian electorate with some interesting and profoundly important choices to make among candidates.
This year, teams led by three US-based scholars, in partnership with the Lok (Peoples’) Foundation in India, have produced an extraordinary study of Indian voters that challenges accepted mythologies about their political thinking, and suggests that many millions of them are resigned to a flawed democracy and are trying to make the best of it, citing economic concerns as their top priority. The survey, titled The Indian Voter Inside Out, was taken among more than 68,000 Indians from October to December 2013, with results published in a series of articles in The Times of India.