India’s six-week, $5 billion “festival of democracy” begins Monday, national elections during which voters will select a 543-member lower house of parliament to represent the country’s 1.2 billion people, a feat of the ballot box unrivaled anywhere else in the world. But this year’s election is capturing global attention as few others have.
Current polls predict a sea change threatening to humble a political dynasty — the Indian National Congress, the storied party of Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and current prime minister Manmohan Singh — and elevate the Bharatiya Janata Party, the leading political face of a growing Hindu nationalist movement whose members say they are hell-bent on cleaning up deeply ingrained political corruption, kickstarting India’s sputtering economic growth and boosting the country’s prestige on the world stage.
But critics of various allegiances here in Mumbai, the birthplace and traditional stronghold of the Congress Party, worry that the BJP’s platform, often communicated in the language of Hindu ideals of tolerance and acceptance, runs counter to those ideals in practice. Though the BJP has won power before, holding the majority from 1998 to 2004, there is a sense that the current nationalist wave represents a more fundamental shift in India’s identity.
Many eyes are on Narendra Modi, the BJP’s candidate for prime minister running on a reputation as an honest, effective reformer with a track record of economic success and protection of women while chief minister of Gujarat. His pro-business, anti-corruption platform resonates with moneyed, urban elites along with Western economic analysts and business leaders while his fiery, populist campaign speeches have rallied huge crowds in rural areas. And his meticulously coordinated online campaign has appealed to many of India’s 120 million first-time voters.
In this Special Report, led by Senior Editor Kevin Grant in partnership with USC-Annenberg’s Diane Winston and a team of young journalists with support from the Henry Luce Foundation, we explored the stakes of this election and the role of Hindu nationalism within it.