The world’s most-populous democracy has made India’s 1.2 billion people less poor. It has also made them more ambitious. Feeble public services, surging inflation, crippling corruption and crumbling infrastructure are ever present grievances of an increasingly fed up population. They yearn for better education, more jobs and faster development as a path to prosperity. They are demanding a change of course. Whether they get it will depend on how they voted in the 2014 national election, a test of India’s maturing democracy that may alter its strong secular and socialist traditions.

The situation

India’s general election, the largest and most elaborate democratic exercise on Earth, concluded 12 May with a record turnout of 66.4%. Nine rounds of polling over five weeks included about 100 million young people casting ballots for the first time. While exit polls are unreliable, the charismatic but divisive Narendra Modi of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is likely to win the most seats in the lower house of parliament. Some of the polls signal that he may even win a majority when results are announced 16 May. Modi’s pro-business message and promise of strong governance blunted criticism of his handling of riots in 2002 in Gujarat, where the 63-year-old has ruled as chief minister since 2001. The bloodshed killed 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, alienating many citizens and polarizing the nation. Gujarat accounts for a quarter of the country’s exports and has attracted investment from companies such as Ford Motor Co., fuelling economic growth that outpaced the rest of the nation’s. After a decade in power, the Congress party appears headed for its worst-ever performance. Its campaign under 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi floundered amid allegations of graft and economic mismanagement. The economy is expanding at close to its slowest pace in a decade and inflation has topped 10% with a jump in the price of onions, a staple of the Indian diet.

The background

Jolted by a balance-of-payments crisis caused by four decades of Soviet-style economic planning, India changed course in 1991 to embrace foreign investment and set the stage for an economic boom. The Congress-led government and its Nehru-Gandhi dynasty redistributed the wealth, expanding subsidies for the poor fivefold over the last decade. The spending provided subsidized food, free education and even guaranteed work in rural areas, where about 70% of the population lives. The share of people living below India’s official poverty line was cut by more than half to 22%. Per-capita income rose to $1,240 in 2013 from about $250 in 1992, though that success still pales in comparison to China’s. Modi’s BJP consolidated the Hindu vote in the 1990s and led the government from 1998 to 2004, when it pursued a partial privatization of state companies. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims have played a defining role in politics since Britain divided the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. Hindus make up about 80% of the population, while 13% are Muslim.

The argument

India’s democracy has traditionally divided spoils along the lines of religion and caste. As aspirations of an expanding urban population rise, the divisions are now more about ideas: how to power faster development, the appropriate role and size of the state, how to weed out corruption and better delivery of public services. The Congress party vowed to restore growth while promising poor voters access to health care and housing to lift more of the nation into the middle class. Modi’s supporters see him as a leader who can restore investor confidence by curbing inflation-fuelling subsidies. He has outlined plans to step up urbanization, allow more foreign investment and rationalize taxes to help create jobs and reduce poverty further. Dozens of smaller regional parties, which now hold about 40% of the parliamentary seats, may hold the balance of power in any emerging coalition. Bloomberg

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