India's election: is secular democracy under threat? Writers, artists and businessmen give their views
This week, voting closed on the Indian general election. It has taken six weeks, with nine separate stages allowing for election staff and security personnel to be redistributed around the country. The reason for this protracted process is, of course, the sheer scale of the operation. According to India’s Election Commission, the electorate in 2014 is 814.5 million. That is the largest in the world, and 100 million more than during the 2009 general election. One fifth of the electorate will be voting for the first time, adding a sense of unpredictability.
The election was mainly a contest between the incumbent left-wing Congress Party, headed by Rahul Gandhi, and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), headed by former chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi. The Aam Admi Party (AAP), headed by Arvind Kerijwal and focusing on corruption, was the third main contender. When it emerged as a vibrant political force earlier this year, it caused shockwaves in the political establishment – but is unlikely to gain sufficient support to seriously disturb the two main parties.
It was an election often fought over communal politics – not least because Modi, frontrunner to win, is held accountable by many for deadly riots in Gujarat in 2002. Thousands of people – mainly Muslim – were killed, and hundreds of thousands displaced. But the election was also fought on corruption, rising prices, the economy, security, and infrastructure like roads, electricity, and water.
This is a crucial moment for India, on the cusp of becoming a regional super power to rival China. Whoever wins must balance these economic aspirations with continued domestic stability.
The result is due on 16 May. As the votes are counted, we have asked a range of people with a connection to India about their hopes and fears for the next parliament.
Salil Tripathi, journalist and author of Offence: The Hindu Case
“This election is one of the most important ones for India, because at stake is whether India retains its flawed secular democratic fabric or embraces a narrow nationalist, majoritarian worldview. The challenge for the new government lies in ensuring that India's minorities feel safe, and the economically vulnerable feel that they are part of its growing economy and are able to participate in India's race to prosperity.”
Anand Patwardhan, documentary filmmaker
“As our corporate controlled Indian media gleefully predicts a landslide for the businessman’s darling Modi, those of us who value secular democracy are offering resistance. Even if ordinary India does not wake up in time, wake up it will, and fascism will never have an easy ride.”
Milan Vaishnav, associate, South Asia Programme, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
“This election has re-confirmed that money, and the ability to raise massive amounts of it, is perhaps the most important determinant in getting a party nomination. The next parliament must reform India’s moribund campaign finance regime in order to make the institution a more representative body for the so-called aam aadmi (common man).“
Sidharth Bhatia, freelance journalist and columnist
“There has been a lot of discussion about spurring growth in the Indian economy. That is important and the next government should work at it. But equally crucial are social equity and justice, human rights, individual freedoms and the environment. Every Indian, especially from minority communities, must feel secure in India. A thriving economy without all these attributes will mean nothing.”
Chandrahas Choudhury, novelist, whose most recent book is Arzee the Dwarf
“As a democrat and a (fairly) young Indian, I'd like to see the Gandhi family's unreasonable control over Indian affairs brought to an end by the new Parliament, as it will be if the ruling Congress-led coalition is defeated. Any new government - in all probability one led by the BJP and Narendra Modi - should be welcomed, as the choice of the popular will in an imperfect world. I expect the new government to have more big ideas for Indian business, foreign policy and administrative reform than the previous one, but fear the ascent, directed from the very spire of government, of a control-obsessed 'moral majority' that will seek to curb, often with the backing of groups of partisan citizens, India's hard-won journalistic, academic and artistic freedoms."
Armand Poonawalla, student
“The AAP has the right to point fingers at the corrupt, which is something that neither the BJP nor the Congress have ever done. Who is going to listen to the BJP or Congress when they accuse others of being corrupt? I believe that if the AAP wins even 30-40 seats, there’ll be a huge change in Indian politics and the corrupt will be exposed.”
Arun Bhattacharya, businessman
“India’s economy has continued to grow these past ten years despite Congress, not because of it. But Modi has achieved great things with the economy in Gujarat. India requires strong leadership to bring us to the next stage of development, where business can grow on a strong footing, and is able to compete internationally in more and more spheres. This is of benefit not just to the wealthy mercantile class but, in the creation of opportunities, to the whole population.”
Shireen Gandhy Jungalwala, gallery owner
“I recently heard someone say they were eagerly awaiting a benevolent dictator. So if Modi scares me, such people and their expectations are even more frightening. I just hope that we who have stood by our convictions will continue to speak fearlessly. Because we know this is going to be a time for revenge and vindictiveness, I fear for my outspoken comrades who have fought tirelessly against fascism these last 12 years. I hope the forces join and remain united and in one voice to battle the time ahead.”
Akriti Patel, teacher
“Years of Congress rule have been years of unprecedented corruption. The AAP is, as we have seen, too immature a political force to rule. The country now needs strong leadership and desperately needs a change of energy. For that reason, I am – despite the fact I have not supported BJP in the past – optimistic about the prospect of the Modi-led government we seem likely to get.”
Amar Kanwar, film maker and artist
“We need to remember that the BJP has links with the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – a paramilitary Hindu nationalist group]. The RSS was behind the conspiracy that resulted in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and was banned after his murder in 1948. Modi and these organisations are allegedly responsible for anti-Muslim massacres and if Modi wins it is not because he is innocent but in fact because his supporters are proud of his guilt.”
Bernard Imhasly, journalist and former diplomat, based in India for 30 years
“If the campaign style is an indication of Modi’s governance style, then we are clearly heading for a presidential type of democracy. It will be backed by a subservient parliament in which many members owe their (re)election to him alone. It would also be backed up by a middle class which has grown impatient with the slow-churning institutions of democracy and feels comfortable in the shadow of a strong leader, a la Putin, Erdogan, Abe, Orban. Disconcerting as this may sound, it would become truly dangerous if Modi decides to pursue a type of ‘majoritarian nationalism’, justified in the name of the 83 per cent Hindus. The effect this would have on the Muslim minority can be guessed if one looks across the border in Pakistan, where majoritarian Sunnism is wrecking the fabric of society.”