On April 11, 2019, India saw tens of millions of citizens, across 20 states and union territories, lining up in front of polling booths and electronic voting machines to cast their ballots. Throngs of people from all walks of life came together—be they tribal women, working-class men or the one percent—in a joint democratic exercise of wiping beads of sweat from their foreheads as they partook in an interminable wait to vote. The 2019 general elections—the world’s largest elections, taking place in the world’s largest democracy—had begun. Amassing a whopping total of 900 million eligible voters and held in seven phases from April 11 to May 19, India’s 38-day-long general elections are currently underway, with the fourth phase having just concluded on Monday, April 29 (BBC, “India votes in world’s biggest ever polls,” 04.11.2019).
India’s two major political parties, the right-wing Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and the center-left Indian National Congress (INC, or Congress), are neck-and-neck once again, vying for the majority of seats in the lower house of parliament (the Lok Sabha). Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who led BJP to victory in the 2014 elections, seeks to extend his five-year term to a 10-year one, while his rival Rahul Gandhi—the figurehead of Congress and the next in a long line of powerful politicians from the Nehru-Gandhi family—is aiming to reestablish the control that Congress held in parliament for so many years, prior to Modi’s ascension.
Both candidates are unideal options. Modi’s landslide victory in 2014 was a result of the country’s starry-eyed belief that he would revive India’s economy, lead the fight against corruption and secure employment for the ever-increasing youth population (The Telegraph, “India election results 2014: five reasons why Narendra Modi won,” 05.16.2014). However, there’s one aspect of his stance that has always loomed insidiously in the background. Throughout his tenure, Modi and his government have acted as a pillar of support for Hindu nationalism. Not only does BJP have close ties and organizational links with right-wing Hindu nationalist paramilitary group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), but Modi’s previous tenure as the Chief Minister of Gujarat is marked by his inaction around and alleged enablement of the bloody violence that occurred against the state’s minority Muslim population during the 2002 Gujarat riots (BBC, “Narendra Modi ‘allowed’ Gujarat 2002 anti-Muslim riots,” 04.22.2011).
Additionally, the current administration’s silence surrounding hate crimes against minority groups continues to speak volumes for its dangerously pro-Hindu stance. Months after Modi’s election in 2014, Hindu mobs began to pop up all across India, lynching Dalits—a lower-caste group historically deemed ‘untouchable’—and Muslims that they suspected of slaughtering cows and selling beef. These groups, known as “cow vigilantes,” claimed that the cow’s status as a sacred animal in the Hindu tradition was justification enough for the lynchings (The New York Times, “Under Modi, a Hindu Nationalist Surge Has Further Divided India,” 04.11.2019). And for the most part, they got away with this targeted violence, donning the security blanket that came with having a Hindu nationalist government in power.
Against this backdrop of anti-Muslim and anti-Dalit sentiment, it’s no surprise that these groups are now experiencing voter suppression. The present elections have been rife with reports that scores of Muslims and Dalits across the nation have been finding themselves unable to vote; their names were mysteriously missing from voter lists, despite having been registered (BBC, “India votes in world’s biggest ever polls”). Mass deletion of names from voter lists has been reported from several states and union territories such as Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand and Delhi. Out of the 120 million missing voters in India, activists say that as many as 40 million of them are Muslims and 30 million are Dalits. The disproportionately high numbers from these groups indicate the possibility of targeted malice—which is not improbable, in the face of how unlikely these groups are to vote for BJP (Al Jazeera, “Allegations of mass voter exclusion cast shadow on India election,” 04.30.2019).
And yet, despite the fact that this whole election reeks of the systematic exclusion of minority groups, the Indian population finds itself in a situation where Modi might be the only viable option, if they want anything to actually get done in this country. Modi’s major opponent, Gandhi, is the poster boy for nepotism, with his entire upward trajectory having been a direct result of his membership to one of the oldest and most powerful political families in India. In that position of power, he has repeatedly been ridiculed over the years for being an uncharismatic orator, frequently making blunders in his speeches, overall exuding the impression of incompetence, and finally, representing an era of “dynastic politics” where “undeserving” candidates continue to receive some of the most prominent posts in the country (The Economist, “The Rahul problem: reader’s comments,” 09.10.2012). His unpopularity precedes him—in 2018, Uttar Pradesh’s Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya stated, “I would like to say that he can become the chief of his party because of family legacy but he can never become PM” (India Today, “Rahul Gandhi will never become prime minister, says UP deputy CM,” 09.15.2018).
However, in the past 18 months of campaigning, Gandhi has made somewhat of a comeback. He has been giving increasingly assured speeches, setting forth a real vision for the country that focuses on working for the public good, and “espousing a politics of unity, hope and inclusiveness” (The New York Times, The Remarkable Comeback of Rahul Gandhi,” 04.22.2019). I’ll be the first to admit that, regardless of his sudden turnaround, I’m still highly skeptical of Rahul Gandhi. Years and years of watching the Indian press rip him to shreds has indoctrinated me with a profound belief that he is truly incompetent. I’ve been deeply distressed about that fact that my country is having to choose between extremism and ineptitude; exclusion and ineffectiveness.
But I’m trying to see the hope. I still don’t think either of them are good candidates. But I also think abstaining from voting is a cowardly cop-out. And even as we’re having to choose between a rock and a hard place, we should keep in mind that, in contrast to Modi’s divisive Hindu nationalist administration, Gandhi’s proposed policies could at least take the country forward without causing irreparable damage to the social landscape of the largest democracy in the world.