India's Two Futures

The Upcoming Election Is More Than an Ideological Showdown

A supporter holds up a mask of the BJP's Narendra Modi. (Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters)

Late this spring, India will hold its 16th general election. The vote will pit the forces of progressivism, which celebrate cultural and social pluralism and promote equity and good governance but appears singularly incapable of policy implementation, against the forces of cultural and religious nationalism, which promote rapid economic growth and political order but show little regard for social justice, religious and ethnic minorities, or the rule of law. The outcome of the battle could very well reshape the world’s largest democracy.

It is tempting to assume that the two competing visions are neatly encapsulated by the race’s main contenders, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But that would be facile. Congress’ election platform certainly suggests that it remains committed to progressivism. But even a cursory examination of its record in office over the past term suggests that it is not. Further, the BJP, which many believe squarely falls into the second category, has not always maintained political order. Some of the worst communal violence, after all, has taken place under its watch. Indeed, despite the BJP’s critique of Congress’ abysmal performance, it has been unable to offer any viable alternative. Although reliable and valid opinion polls are scant, it should not come as a surprise when neither party obtains a clear-cut mandate.

The Indian public has been greatly disappointed by Congress’ performance as the leading party within the United Progressive Alliance regime, which has ruled India since 2004. During its first term in office (2004–9), the UPA presided over substantial economic growth, successfully concluded a major agreement on civilian nuclear power with the United States, and passed legislation designed to promote greater government accountability. All the while, it pursued generally progressive social policies. However, in its second term, the UPA seemed to lose its way. Several of its party members were indicted for involvement in corruption schemes. Particularly dispiriting was the case of Andimuthu Raja, a cabinet member who was implicated in the dubious allocation of the 2G mobile phone spectrum -- a scandal involving roughly $40 billion. Worse still, economic growth in recent years has plummeted to less than five percent per year, and the prospects of jump-starting it seem remote.

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