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MILAN VAISHNAV is an associate with the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. You can follow him on Twitter @MilanV.See more by this author
As India heads into a critical election season, the country seems adrift. In its foreign relations, it is on its back foot both in South Asia and with China and the United States. At home, citizens and visitors are increasingly concerned about law and order after several highly publicized attacks on women. But one challenge stands above all else: the economy. India’s growth rate has fallen by nearly half since 2010; inflation remains high; corruption is rampant; and the investment cycle has collapsed. When voters are asked to identify what issues will decide their vote when they go to the polls this April, they consistently place economic development, inflation, and corruption at the top of their list.
Unfortunately for voters, none of the leading parties have presented a coherent economic strategy. Instead, their economic policy messages can be summed up as a series of bumper sticker slogans: “Trust us” for the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); “Who, us?” for the ruling Congress Party; “Anyone but them” for various regional parties; and “You, not us” (AAP) for the Aam Aadmi Party, an anti-corruption and populist newcomer that scored an upset victory in the December 2013 Delhi elections.
The BJP, led by Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, is widely seen as the front-runner. That is mostly thanks to the Congress government’s intellectual bankruptcy when it comes to reviving the economy and Modi’s accomplished track record in Gujarat. But scratch the surface and neither the BJP nor its competitors have delivered on a growth strategy for the long run.
Three major pre-election polls suggest that the BJP is on track for its best-ever performance on Election Day. It could potentially even surpass the 182 seats it obtained in both 1998 and 1999, when the public opted for its Hindu nationalist ideology and good governance rhetoric. But despite the public’s apparent enthusiasm, the BJP has failed to articulate a cogent economic vision. Instead, as elections loom, BJP officials’ strategy has been to point to either its last stint in power or to Modi’s economic success in Gujarat and say, “Trust us.”