India goes to the polls on April 7. When the results are out on May 16, Indians will have taken a crucial decision: to vote for change or to merely vote out the incumbent government, writes DW's Grahame Lucas.
To all intents and purposes Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in power for two terms, and the architect of India's highly successful liberalization policies in the 1990s, has simply run out of steam. The 81 year-old is retiring, disappointed in all probability by his second term as prime minister which saw the economy falter as growth rates fell and inflation set in. In contrast, his first term was an unmitigated success triggering speculation about India's imminent and inexorable rise to superpower status as China's principal political and economic rival in Asia.
As Singh's term ends, India appears dogged by a seemingly unending series of corruption scandals reaching into the highest echelons of government and the ruling Congress Party. Economic growth is now far lower than China's. Whereas Beijing has taken huge strides towards improving the lot of the rural poor, little has happened in India.
Politics in Delhi are gridlocked and firmly in the hands of an elite obsessed with accumulating more and more wealth.
Despite the economic growth of the Singh years, some 500 million Indians continue to live on or below the poverty line. The wealth created in the boom years has hardly trickled down to the poor at all. Adequate education for all remains a huge problem despite lofty goals. And India's women live in what is for them one of the most dangerous countries in the world where mostly only lip service is paid to women's rights. Admittedly, the Singh government toughened up the law, introducing fast track trials for suspected rapists, but only after a series of terrible rape cases. It has done little or nothing to change underlying patriarchal attitudes in society.
In the next few weeks, Congress will in all probability anoint Rahul Gandhi as its new leader. This is a high risk move. The scion of the country's most famous dynasty, which has produced leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, is very inexperienced. There remain very serious doubts indeed about his desire to lead his country. He appears more inclined to lead the life of a bachelor millionaire and to shirk political responsibility than to attempt to enter the murky political world that is New Delhi.
So far, Rahul has shown no signs of the strength or talent required to pull Congress up by the boot strings, to modernize the party, or to offer a coherent vision of a modern India with a future for both its burgeoning middle class and its millions below the poverty line. Apart from his famous name there is little to rally voters to the Congress cause. India must ask itself if the time has not come to modernize its political parties so that they can express the will of the electorate rather than remaining the toys of the rich and powerful elites.
The rampant corruption in the country has in the last few years produced a series of figureheads who draw their moral authority from a flourishing anti-corruption movement which has now given birth to the Aam Admi party (AAP). This populist, protest party appears likely to win enough votes to prevent either Congress or the main Hindu-nationalist opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from winning an outright majority. As a consequence, a complex coalition including regional parties may have to be formed requiring the delicate touch of an experienced political operator with the ability to weld together would-be partners with very different approaches to the country's problems.
That person may be Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the state of Gujarat and leader of the BJP. Modi, a consummate political operator, has a lot going for him. He has transformed the fortunes of his home state after 12 years at the helm. By streamlining the bureaucracy and securing inbound investment, Gujarat has become a success story and the envy of many other Indian states.
But a long shadow hangs over the 62 year old Hindu nationalist. Back in 2002, over 900 Muslims died in religiously inspired rioting in Gujarat. Modi was accused not only of failing to stop the rioting but also of condoning it. He always denied these allegations. It was never proven that he acted improperly, but a member of his cabinet was subsequently convicted of religious incitement. In the aftermath, the United States and several European nations banned Modi from entering their countries. European countries including Germany rescinded these measures in 2012 and the United States is now scrambling to restore its diplomatic relations with the man who may be India's next leader.
According to the opinion polls, many Indian voters see Modi as the man to deliver economic reforms and an increase in prosperity. They believe he can implement the Gujarat model countrywide. But many others, including the Muslims, do not trust him. Millions of Indians are disgusted by the prospect of such a divisive political figure assuming the country's leadership. This dilemma is reflected in the latest polls, which show Modi at present falling some 40 seats short of an overall majority in the national parliament with Congress well beaten.
The key to the outcome in the coming weeks may lie in the hands of the 100 million young Indians who will vote for the first time in this election. They owe nothing to Congress and Modi, the man who polarizes Indian society more than any other, may not be their first choice either. But while Gandhi dithers over his future, Modi is targeting young voters via the social media on an unprecedented scale. It is the battle for their hearts and minds which will decide India's immediate future. The outcome will be most likely a fragile coalition unable to deliver the reforms India needs most.