THE BLOG
04/21/2014 12:19 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

800 Million Voters in World's Biggest Election: Are Gay Rights on the Ballot?

As you read this, 800 million people in the world's largest democracy are going to vote in the biggest elections the world has ever seen. India, with its population of 1.2 billion, will elect a leader by May 17.

Even though this election is far from a fait accompli, there are some clear indications of how the battle lines are drawn. As anyone who has witnessed an election in India will tell you, these are events with more than a little bit of Bollywood drama -- and like Bollywood, there are myriad actors.

What happens in India over the next few weeks will have an impact on everything from women's rights to foreign policy and the economy in a country that is home to about one-fifth of the world's population.

More than 1,300 registered parties have entered the fray, and they have adopted election symbols ranging from an air conditioner to a cauliflower and even a nail cutter. However, if you haven't been following India's election coverage with academic zeal, the three symbols (and parties) to watch out for are the lotus (symbol of the right wing Hindu Nationalist BJP), the hand (symbol of the incumbent Congress Party), and the broom (symbol of the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party -- literally the "Common Man party").

In all this, are gay rights on the ballot? Technically, no. But the major players all have a stance on the issue. This is unprecedented good news in at least one sense. In past elections, gay rights haven't even been a peripheral issue. This time around, they are an issue. But the good news, unfortunately, stops there. It is, at best, only a peripheral issue.

Here's a bird's eye view of the current state of play and of what each of the three major parties thinks about gay rights:

1. The BJP is very likely to either win or lead a coalition government, according to opinion polls. Narendra Modi, BJP's Prime Ministerial candidate, has been successfully positioned as the messiah of the masses, someone who will lead India into a new era. His detractors highlight his failure to prevent communal riots in 2002 in Gujarat, the state where he was Chief Minister, which led to the deaths of over a thousand Muslims. Also considered problematic are his ties with BJP's ideological front, the RSS, which is India's right wing, and often extremist, Hindu nationalist group.

The BJP's stance on gay rights? Unsurprisingly, gay is not okay! After the Indian Supreme Court recriminalized homosexual conduct in December 2013, BJP Chief Rajnath Singh went on record to say that his party "unambiguously" supported the decision and to remind us all that homosexuality is an "unnatural act." The RSS has gone so far as to condemn even unmarried heterosexual co-habitation, because unmarried coupling of any kind undermines India's "moral values, social system and traditions in the name of individual freedom."

2. The incumbent Congress Party and the outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are considered largely ineffectual and out of touch with on the ground reality. Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of India's former Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, leads the party. A lot of Indians have grown weary of Nehru-Gandhi dynasty politics and of the stagnant Congress party rhetoric, which manages to preserve little more than a tired status quo. Rahul Gandhi has consistently delivered up to his opponents a stream of priceless quotes, including some Sarah-Palinesque twitter-trending gems, such as "Poverty is just a state of mind."

This party's stance on gay rights? Gay is mostly okay, but not okay enough to haul the issue into the mainstream election conversation. Mrs. Gandhi issued a statement condemning the Supreme Court decision in December, which was a bold and unprecedented move.

3. The AAP (or the "Common Man Party") with its strong anti-corruption agenda, was formed less than 18 months ago but has been single handedly responsible for bringing politics into the mainstream conversation for a huge section of the Indian middle class. Many of my friends now have the "broom" (AAP's election symbol) as their Facebook and Twitter profile pictures, which suggests a considerable grassroots enthusiasm at least in my circles. Before AAP's existence, the response of a large section of the Indian middle class toward politics was the apathetic "Kya Farak Padta Hai?" -- "What does it matter?" This was a generation that had seen India change and grow in spite of, and not because of, the political parties in power.

The AAP's stance on gay rights? Gay is A-OK! The party has voiced opposition to Section 377, the law that makes gay sex illegal. It has also included this in its Mumbai manifesto, just stopping short of including it in the national manifesto. One of the party's candidates, Medha Patkar, recently told the media that she is in support of gay marriage.

Will this hurt the AAP in these elections given that the popular opinion is not yet in favor of gay rights? Likely not. This is because popular opinion (with notable exceptions of course) is not so much against gay people or gay rights but in fact is largely indifferent. Gay rights are just seen as too "fringe" to matter to many in India. The Supreme Court, in its December ruling, called the gay community a "minuscule minority," and that is a perception that is slow in changing.

In the past, promises made during the election season in India have not had much to do with the elected government's priorities later. In this case, that may be a good thing (assuming the BJP comes to power.) However, ideologies seldom change completely or suddenly either. Most people believe that Obama's views on gay marriage "evolved" during his term because he was always in support of it but had to wait for the politically correct moment.

The Indian gay community currently neither has popular opinion nor political muscle behind it. LGBT rights in western countries often became politically mainstream after an increase in two supporting factors -- an explosion in the number of straight allies and the gay lobby's increasing wealth and clout.

For now, we might have to contend with the fact that gay rights have at least entered the political conversation in India, even if it's a voice from the margins.

But at least there is one more silver lining here worth celebrating: Social and economic change in India has not been constrained by the powers that be. That's a powerful fact. India is a country with over 600 million people under the age of 25, a growing and increasingly engaged middle class, and gay rights is finally one step closer. It is, at long last, on the agenda.