The dimensions of American myopia are well established. From climate change to health care, the American way of doing business is not always universal. Democracy—that great civic religion—is no different. India, not the United States, boasts the largest democracy in the world, and the nation of 1.2 billion is currently in midst of a mammoth general election. Starting April 7 and running until May 12, the staggered election process for the Lok Sabha (lower parliament) will feature an amazing 815 million registered voters heading to the polls with an expected budget of $5 billion dollars, second only to the 2012 U.S. presidential election. India hews to a Westminster system, meaning that after all the votes are tallied for the parliament, the party with the most seats will have the chance to form a government or direct a majority coalition and likely anoint a prime minister from within its ranks.
Yesterday, the largest round of voting in India’s elections took place, with 121 seats up for grabs across 12 states. The story thus far has been the rise of Narendra Modi, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is widely expected to bounce incumbent Manmohan Singh and his Congress Party from rule. The BJP espouses a muscular brand of Hindu nationalism mixed with a strong economic platform, and combined with frustration with the Congress Party’s inept leadership and a slowed economy, Modi’s agile stewardship of the northwestern Gujarat state has won him popularity from the business sector as well as staunch Hindu nationalists.
But Modi’s apparent ascension has stoked fears about religious tolerance under the BJP. Though religious violence is an unfortunately common incident for India, Gujarat saw an ugly spate of religious violence under Modi’s watch in 2002, and many Indians think he did not do enough to curtail riots that killed 1200 Muslims across the state after a train filled with Hindus was set on fire. Modi’s failure to accept responsibility or express remorse has led to commentators like the Economist and others to offer warning.
As the latest dynastic offspring of the Nehru-Gandhi ruling party try to stave off a Modi win for the Congress Party, another group has received increasingly serious attention for their attempts to channel anger with the country’s rampant record of corruption the An Aam Aadmi Party, or Common Man Party, has gained followers, especially among youth, who are especially tired of business as usual. While the upstart party has enjoyed only modest success so far, reaching the newest voters is something all parties are thinking about. With about 150 million new voters in this election (a number larger than the total number of voters in the last U.S. presidential election), youth are poised to play an active role at the ballot box for many years to come, and that’s just one reason to be optimistic about the future of India.