The general elections that begin in India early next month are a turning point for the world’s most populous democracy. The electorate appears to be faced with a choice between stability and growth; but its response will shape more than just the country’s economic future.
The Congress Party that has ruled for the past decade is looking increasingly exhausted. The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, may be the architect of economic reforms that set India on a path to modernity, helping to lift almost a billion people out of poverty in the process. But two two terms of office, torpid GDP growth and a failure to tackle the country’s endemic corruption have taken the lustre off the 81-year-old’s unquestionably stellar achievements.
Congress’s comprehensive trouncing in the state elections that took place last December, not least the triumph of the Aam Aadmi (“common man”) anti-graft party in Delhi, made the public’s thinning patience abundantly clear. Nor does Mr Singh’s successor as Congress candidate offer much inspiration. As the scion of India’s foremost political dynasty, Rahul Gandhi – son, grandson and great-grandson of former prime ministers – would always have had to work hard to be a new broom. As it is, he shows neither the enthusiasm nor the ability to get to grips with India’s multiple problems.
Enter the challenger, Narendra Modi, chief minister of the state of Gujarat and prime ministerial candidate of the centre-right Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, a self-made political colossus. Mr Modi has much to recommend him. Thanks to his efforts to slash red tape and pour investment into infrastructure, Gujurat has near tripled its economic output.
The country as a whole badly needs a similar boost. India’s once-soaring growth rate is languishing below 5 per cent – far from sufficient to create the 13 million jobs needed to absorb new entrants into the workforce each year. Taken together with high inflation, a weak currency and falling foreign investment, the outlook is a far cry from the roaring optimism that once characterised the “i” in Brics.
But there is more to consider than economics. Mr Modi’s famously high-handed style would be a concern in any event, particularly given the prickly foreign relationships over which India’s prime minister must preside. But even that is as nothing compared with the long shadow of the anti-Muslim violence that rocked Gujurat in 2002, leaving 1,000 dead. Mr Modi has always denied links with the Hindu extremists behind the bloodshed and he has been cleared of wrong-doing in the courts. But few are convinced that the chief minister – and a Hindu nationalist chief minister, at that – can be entirely free from responsibility, even if the sins were of omission rather than commission.
Such insinuations would be toxic in any politician; in someone who would be a national leader, they are deeply disturbing. And Mr Modi’s failure to address them satisfactorily only adds to the concern. When Jawaharlal Nehru founded the modern state of India it was with a recognition of the sub-continent’s glorious pluralism at its heart. Mr Modi has made a career out of the direct opposite. Yes, he has shown himself a deft campaigner, efficient administrator and convincing economic reformer. But he’ll need to be much truer to the idea of India before he gets this newspaper’s vote.