UBC Prof. Anjali Thomas Bohlken breaks down India’s massive general election
Approximately 814 million people in India are electing new leaders. UBC’s Anjali Thomas Bohlken discusses the major political and logistical issues behind the world’s largest election.
Who are the key players in the Indian election?
The incumbent is the Indian National Congress, which has led a coalition government for two terms since 2004. The leader of the party is Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi is the likely prime ministerial candidate. The Congress has been strongly criticized by opposing parties for its governance record, corruption scandals and tendency toward dynastic rule.
The main challenger is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is campaigning on a record of economic development and clean governance in the state of Gujarat. Unlike the Congress party, which is secular – at least in name – the BJP is a Hindu nationalist party with links to militant organizations.
Besides the Congress and the BJP, there are approximately 1,600 parties competing in these elections. If no party wins a majority – as is likely to be the case – some regional parties may gain influence as part of a coalition government.
What are the major election issues so far?
The Congress has presided over a period of slowing economic growth and high inflation. It has also been embroiled in a series of high profile corruption scandals. As a result, they are facing a strong “anti-incumbency” movement.
That said, there are huge questions about BJP leader Narendra Modi’s alleged involvement in anti-Muslim violence during the 2002 Gujarat riots. His past, and what it means if he is elected, is a divisive issue that has polarized voters.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a new party that grew out of large-scale anti-corruption protests, is attracting attention as an alternative to mainstream parties. The AAP won a surprise victory in a recent local election in Delhi but subsequently resigned from government in just 49 days, raising questions about its ability to govern at the national level.
What are the biggest issues facing India and its next leader?
The key domestic issues are the worsening economic conditions and high inflation that have characterized recent years. The Congress government introduced important large-scale welfare programs, but these programs have faced implementation problems at the local level. Tackling corruption and improving governance are also major election issues.
Internationally, one of the key decisions to make is regarding foreign investment – how much to allow and in what sectors. There is also the enduring issue of Kashmir and India’s relations with Pakistan. The subject of revising India’s nuclear program has been raised by the BJP.
Are there any other trends or groups to watch?
One interesting feature of this election is the widespread use of social media by many of the major parties. These efforts are, of course, mostly targeted at the middle and upper classes. The pro-business middle and upper classes are generally inclined to vote for the BJP. However, the AAP party has had some success targeting sections of the middle class that feel disgruntled with both the Congress and the BJP.
Poverty and illiteracy are still major issues in India – how do they factor into elections?
Election officials address illiteracy in many ways. For example, symbols are used to represent the parties on ballots. More broadly, illiteracy affects the actual choices that voters make at the polls, as these voters are often unaware of policy issues. Research suggests that areas where illiteracy is prevalent are more prone to intimidation and are more likely to vote for criminal candidates. There are also reports of enticements, including liquor and bags of rice, being offered in exchange for votes, which election officials seek to combat.
Anjali Thomas Bohlken is an assistant professor in UBC’s Dept. of Political Science. India’s election runs until May 12 and results are due on May 16. This interview has been edited and condensed.