India's election is big but small on choice

Despite the huge turnout, India’s voters haven’t been presented with a great deal of choice in terms of who will run the country for the next five years.
BJP supporters
BJP supporters

India’s election this month is the biggest democratic poll in human history, with more than 800 million voters eligible to take part in a process that has lasted over a month.

But size isn’t everything. Despite the huge turnout, India’s voters haven’t been presented with a great deal of choice in terms of who will run the country for the next five years.

The two leading candidates for the job of prime minister are Rahul Gandhi, the heir to a political dynasty who says he wants to combat inequality, and Narendra Modi, a socially conservative Hindu accused of stirring up religious tensions.

Exit polls in the past couple of days suggest a victory for BJP, Modi’s party, but neither is a compelling candidate for a country that desperately needs a strong leader who can push through important governance and economic reforms.

India’s economic growth has slowed during the past three years, making the governing Indian National Congress party incredibly unpopular.

Modi, who belongs to the BJP, is widely considered the best choice for the economy among the business elite, thanks to the successes he has claimed in Gujarat, where he has served as chief minister  between 2001 and 2011.

“I think in Gujarat [Modi] has proven his leadership and he has moved Gujarat into a position of prominence,” said Ratan Tata, chairman emeritus of Tata Group, in an interview with India’s CNN affiliate. Many others have chimed in with similar sentiments.

However, Modi’s so-called Gujarat model is hardly a coherent set of policies that can be transplanted to the national economy. For starters, Modi inherited a fast-growing economy in 2001. It grew by a further 167% during the decade 2001 to 2011 — much faster than any other large state — but even his supporters credit this success to Modi’s technocratic leadership rather than to any specific reforms or policies.

He has pursued infrastructure projects and inward investment with a pragmatism that is all too rare in Indian politics, and which has certainly endeared him to foreign and domestic investors alike.
But India today is not very similar to Gujarat in 2001. Will Modi have what it takes to negotiate reforms? Will he even try?

The BJP’s manifesto suggests not. It offers very little in the way of a model for national economic revival and in almost all respects is indistinguishable from the policies of the current government.

And the less said about its plan to “initiate building 100 new cities” the better.

Everything hinges on Modi’s individual ability to improve things through competent administration. That seems like a long shot.

Moreover, critics also complain that Modi’s economic growth in Gujarat has not translated into economic development. A committee headed by Raghuram Rajan, now the central bank governor, was set up to create an index for identifying the states most in need of development funds and it reported in September that Gujarat was distinctly middle-of-the-pack in terms of its development.

Out of 28 states, Gujarat ranked 12th for spending (per capita), 14th for poverty, 15th for female literacy and 17th for infant mortality. It has also slipped down the rankings in education, as well as access to electricity and services such as banking and telecoms during the period when Modi was in charge.

Even so, almost anyone would be better than another high-born member of the Delhi elite. Modi is an ordinary Indian from a “backward caste” and his reputation as a tough, honest politician with an ability to get things done is at least encouraging.

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