India gears up for world’s biggest election

India expects: Can Narendra Modi overcome his anti-Muslim past and lead such a diverse country?

The largest democracy on the planet has started going to the polls. Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi is the favourite to become the next prime minister, but is he the right man for the job?

In India this week, there is just one question on everyone’s mind: who will be the next prime minister of the world’s largest democracy?

The polls opened on Monday and the figures are staggering: over 814 million are registered to vote over the next six weeks – more than the population of the US and the EU combined. Voters will choose from 370 political parties to elect 543 members of the Lok Sabha parliament.

The young will be crucial to the outcome. Over 65% of India’s population is under 35 and first-time voters make up 14% of the electorate. Their chief concern is the cost of living, yet economic growth has halved under the ruling Congress party, which is rapidly losing support. Corruption is also a key issue – an astonishing 30% of all MPs are facing criminal charges.

One man is already the clear favourite to become prime minister – Narendra Modi, the charismatic candidate of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. A former tea seller, Modi rose up the political ranks through sheer ability. As chief minister of the state of Gujarat since 2001, he has a good record of economic management.

By contrast, Modi’s main rival, Rahul Gandhi, belongs to the family which has dominated Indian politics since independence in 1947. He is seen by many as indecisive and his party tainted by corruption.

But Modi is a highly controversial figure. In 2002, he was accused of encouraging the massacre of over 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat – a revenge attack after suspected arson on a train killed 59 Hindu pilgrims. He was subsequently treated as a pariah by the West, although the Indian Supreme Court found no evidence on which to charge him.

He still inflames religious tensions today in a country where the threat of sectarian violence is ever present. This week he vowed to build a Hindu temple on the site of a former mosque, to bring Kashmir under direct rule and to end India’s separate code of personal law for Muslims.

But a leopard cannot change its spots, others argue. Modi’s anti-Muslim attitudes are at least partly responsible for some of the worst religious violence ever seen in independent India. His continuing failure to explain his part in the 2002 massacres shows a shockingly reckless attitude to the country’s most divisive issue. Putting Modi in charge could be a dangerous move.

Man on a mission

Is Modi the right choice for India?

For a great many, the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’. Indian voters care most about the economy and Modi has proved a popular and capable businessman. His earlier hardline attitudes towards Muslims have softened, and his focus on the economy could bring greater prosperity for all Indians, and with it, greater social cohesion.

You Decide

  1. Is Modi’s past too controversial for him to be India’s next prime minister?
  2. What qualities are needed to make a good prime minister?


  1. Discuss in groups what issues would be most important to you in an election.
  2. Research the Partition of India – why did it happen and what was the result? Present your findings to the class.

Some People Say...

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. George Santayana”

What do you think?

Q & A

India is a long way away – why should I be interested in this election?
India and the UK share an entwined history. The election is an important reminder of the UK’s impact on the country – for better and worse – and how religious tensions are still capable of surfacing. India also has a fast-growing, powerful economy and nuclear weapons – making it an important ally.
How important is India’s youth in this election?
Very. Over 150 million 18 to 23-year-olds will vote for the first time this year. As they call for sweeping reform, the major political parties are increasingly having to make sure they listen to their demands. These elections serve as a powerful reminder of how young people can change the course of their country’s future through voting.

Word Watch

Lok Sabha
The lower house of India's parliament. As in the UK, members of parliament are elected in each geographical constituency in a ‘first past the post’ contest. This means that the leader of the party which wins the most seats will become prime minister. No single party has won a parliamentary majority in India since 1989, and the country has been ruled by coalitions since then.
Since India gained its independence from Britain in 1947, the Congress party – led by members of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty – has dominated the country’s politics. Rahul Gandhi is the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first premier. (He has no direct blood relation to Mahatma Gandhi, the independence leader.)
Sectarian violence
Violence between groups of people with different religions.
There have been three wars between India and Pakistan since 1947, two of them over the disputed territory of Kashmir.
In anticipation of Modi winning the elecion, India’s main stock indexes are up, and so too is the country’s currency – the rupee.
Independent India
By the middle of the 19th century, Britain had assumed political control of virtually all territory in the subcontinent. India was considered to be the British Empire’s ‘jewel in the crown’, as it was rich in valuable resources. A long campaign of resistance to British colonialism led to independence in 1947 and the subsequent Partition into the mainly Muslim state of Pakistan and the majority Hindu state of India.


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