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Voting India

India Votes

4 April 2014

On 7 April the world’s largest democracy starts voting for a new parliament, a process that takes over a month. India’s 814 million voters will elect 543 members of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the national parliament. The results will be declared on 16 May.

One unknown question is how many regional and other issue parties will make it into parliament. No single party has won a parliamentary majority since 1989, so recent governments have involved coalitions of smaller regional parties led by either the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the National Congress Party. There are over 30 parties represented in the current parliament. One of the most interesting questions will be the performance of Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, or Common Man’s Party) which has come from nowhere to capture around 10% of the voters for its strong anti-corruption stance.

All polls point to a high level of dissatisfaction with the current government led by Manmohan Singh. Failure to tackle economic issues, especially unemployment and inflation, as well as corruption top the list of grievances. Moreover, there are indications that many Indians are hungry for change and decisive leadership, a quality missing under the prevailing government, but attributed to BJP leader, Narendra Modi. The expectation is that the business-friendly BJP will win and Modi will become the new prime minister.

The National Congress party seems set to lose many MPs. Rahul Ghandi has not been able to capitalise on the famous family name and many think Congress needs time in opposition to renew itself. Polls show that Congress leads only in the over 60 age group. The vast majority of younger Indians, and the average age is just 25, prefer other parties.

Who is Modi, the likely future prime minister? Mr Modi is the 64 year old chief minister of Gujarat and has a good track record in running the economy in his home state. His record on human development issues (education, health, etc) is less impressive. He was also tainted with complicity in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat which led to the US and EU denying him a visa until recently. He has projected an image as a rather austere, practical, hard-working politician who knows how to cut through red tape and get things done. No surprisingly the business community is largely behind Modi.

Modi seems to have recognised more than most politicians how much India has changed in the past two decades and how Indians want to experience the better life increasingly available to their Asian neighbours, including the Chinese. Modi is also standing as an outsider the Delhi elite, a radical reformer who would embrace technology and unleash India’s entrepreneurial talents on the world stage. With his slogan of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ Modi seems able to transcend the class and caste barriers that have traditionally inhibited the BJP.  He contrasts his own humble background with that of Rahul Gandhi who he describes as the ‘princeling.’

What are the prospects for change in India’s foreign policy? Modi has said little about foreign policy preferring to focus on domestic issues. India’s priorities of dealing with the major powers and remaining top dog in South Asia are unlikely to change. Thwarted in its attempts to gain a permanent seat on the UNSC India has been a promoter of the BRICS. It is the world’s largest arms importer and relies on Russia for 75 percent of its arms imports. This may have coloured its decision to take a broadly pro-Russian stance in the crisis over the Crimea. India’s stance on Russia’s annexation of Crimea could cause problems in Kashmir where local groups are now demanding a referendum to decide their own future.

Relations with the US have been mired by disputes over the nuclear deal, trade spats and the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York. Despite two India-China summits in 12 months both sides remain suspicious of each other.  The EU has taken a back seat, largely regarded as a trade bloc with political pretences but no hard power. Assuming Modi wins then he will probably seek to improve relations with the US and EU. But if he governs in a coalition he may well have to bow to domestic protectionist forces just like Singh. The EU will be hoping that a decisive victory for the BNP will break the deadlock in the stalled EU-India free trade negotiations and give fresh momentum to EU-India relations overall.