Is South Asia becoming a beacon for democracy? On the heels of an inspiring voter turnout in Afghanistan, voters in India are mobilizing in one of the most impressive exercises in universal adult franchise. Just a few months earlier, Pakistan had its first peaceful democratic transition in power. Bangladesh, surprisingly, was an outlier when the ruling party swept back into power via a non-election election. A boycott by the opposition led to a majority of the ruling party members being elected unopposed. Despite this, the general trend in South Asia is positive, with India once again leading the way.
In India, this year, an estimated 814.5 million people are eligible to vote. This is up from 713 million voters in 2009, representing an impressive 14 percent increase, with the largest increase in voter registrations coming from younger Indians. Elections will be held in 28 Indian states and 7 union territories. Two national political parties are in contention -- the Indian National Congress (INC), established in 1885 and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), established in 1980. There are well over 50 regional or state political parties, some of them splinter groups from the national parties, and others independently organized. However, it is the regional parties that will collectively decide the fate of the next Indian government as the neither of the national parties will win the majority of the seats being contested. Indian politics is increasingly Balkanized and a national election is really an amalgamation of many regional elections. Since 1989, no single political party has mustered a clear majority in any national election.
In its 16th general election, Indian voters will elect 543 out of the 545 seats of the lower house of parliament, called the Lok Sabha or People's House. National elections take place once every five years unless the ruling party calls for an early vote or loses the confidence of a majority of its members. The Lok Sabha will select the prime minister, who is the head of government.
The Indian Election Commission, a constitutional body independent of the government, conducts the election. The campaign season mercifully lasts only eight weeks, although voting in some states can begin as early as two weeks after the official opening of the campaign season. Ballots are cast electronically over six weeks, from April 7 to May 12 this year, in nine phases. In the three phases completed thus far, voter turnout has been higher than the expected 60 percent. Results will not be announced until all regions have completed voting.
The Election Commission is required to have a polling place within 1.2 miles of every voter. To fulfill this mandate requires 10 million polling officials and security personnel in 930,000 polling stations. Election day in each region is a paid holiday for all non-essential workers. Even part-time workers are granted paid leave fulfilling an Election Commission mandate that every eligible voter shall be given the proper means to fulfill their right.
Indian democracy faces some of the same challenges that our American democracy faces, from the corrosive influence of money to the problem of incumbency. However, unlike the US, 75 percent of the source of funds to Indian political parties is unknown, according to the Association of Democratic Reform. Of the sources that are known, 87 percent of the funding comes from the corporate sector or business houses. In India where the average per capita income is a shade over Rs. 50,000 ($830), the largest donors lavished money on the political parties to the tune of several million dollars. Industrialist Aditya Birla's group gave Rs. 360 million to INC and Rs. 260 million to its rival BJP.
The Association of Democratic Reform also reports that the average candidate owned Rs. 50 million worth in assets. In the last Lok Sabha, the average wealth of a member of parliament was Rs. 100 million. The average Indian will have to live longer than Noah to achieve these levels of wealth gains. More alarmingly, 30 percent of the candidates have a criminal case against them. India's National Election Watch announced that of the 162 parliamentarians involved in 306 criminal cases, 76 are charged with serious crimes like murder, attempted murder and kidnapping.
The nationalist and Hindu fundamentalist BJP party is likely to muster enough seats to form a coalition government with Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister. Indians are poised to give the religious right yet another chance mainly because the secularist INC has failed to deliver on their promise of equitable economic growth and are now mired in many corruption scandals. After growing at 8 percent a year, the Indian economy has slowed down to a 5 percent rate of growth. Narendra Modi, who is head of the Indian state of Gujarat, has delivered above average economic growth for his state and projects to replicate this success all across India. His slogan toilets before temple have given hope many that he will keep his fundamentalist roots subservient to his pro-business credentials.
Modi has a checkered past. He failed to stop mob violence against the Muslim minority in his state that lead to the death of over a thousand people with many more displaced. This is the primary reason Modi has been denied entry into the United States for nearly a decade now. About 16,000 Muslims displaced in the communal riots of 2002 still remain in relief colonies where they are denied even the most basic amenities. While Modi boasts of his state's impressive economic growth he blames "vegetarianism and figure-conscious Gujarati girls" as the reason his state ranks high on malnutrition. Nearly half the children below the age of five suffer from malnutrition and nearly 70 percent children in Modi's 'Shining Gujarat' suffer from anemia.
Modi's religious fundamentalist roots are worrisome for women in India, who are increasingly the target of male chauvinism often emanating for religious fundamentalists. According to Human Rights Watch, women during the communal riots of 2002 Gujarat were stripped, gang-raped, then burned or hacked to death. Indian women are worried that violence against women will not receive the priority it should in the wake of several high profile rape cases. In Gujarat there are 918 women for every 1000 men. This is below the national average of 940, perhaps suggesting a high level of female infanticide in Gujarat.
Indians are caught between a rock and hard place. On one hand they desperately want the government to re-ignite India's economic growth. And yet the party with the most pro-business credential is also cloaked in anti-modern social views that will further disadvantage India's struggling minorities and women. Modi's slogan, toilets before temples, sounds good but the fact that temples come ahead of improving social cohesion, should make Indians nervous. We have seen plenty of examples around the world where religious fundamentalists capitalized on the economic failure of the secularists but once in power they drifted rightward leaving the country more divided. Modi may turn around India's economic performance but at what cost to the poor, the minority and the disenfranchised, remains a question and concern.
Parvez Ahmed was born and educated in India. He is a graduate of Aligarh Muslim University. Currently he is Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida and Director of Center for Sustainable Business Practices.