An Unabashedly Capitalist India Goes to the Polls

A campaign mural

Sunday, May 9, 2004— I wake up and pull the curtains and see that the clouds have lifted. It’s been raining all over South India for a week—an unseasonable, torrential downpour that has flooded the coast and brought down power lines—and now, at last, the skies are blue again.

I’m in Cochin, in the state of Kerala, and tomorrow is the last day of India’s marathon national elections, which have been staggered over three weeks. The clear skies should help boost turnout—and that’s a good thing, because this last round is critical. Approximately 215 million voters are eligible to go to the polls in 12 states and four union territories. Their preferences are likely to determine the shape of the next government.

Campaign posters overwhelm a soft-drink ad

That’s something of a surprise. Back in February, when the elections were announced, few expected this last day to matter much. Opinion polls had the ruling National Democratic Alliance, headed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, headed for a landslide victory. The economy was red hot (it grew at an annual rate of 10.4 percent last quarter); peace with Pakistan seemed genuinely on track; and the BJP’s leader, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was by far the most popular politician in the nation. To top it all, the Indian cricket team won a resounding victory against its arch-rival Pakistan just before the polls opened. Conventional wisdom had it that the country (and, by extension, the BJP) was basking in what the newspapers called a “feelgood factor.” India, in the words of a ubiquitous ad campaign unleashed by the government, was “shining.”

At some point in the weeks leading up to the polls, however, the winds began to change. Maybe the BJP overreached with its negative and highly personal campaign against the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, leader of the main opposition Congress Party and widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (who was assassinated in 1991). Or maybe it was the Congress’ portrayal of the BJP as overly concerned with the shining cities at the expense of the countryside, where 75 percent of the population lives and where desperate farmers are said to be committing suicide in record numbers. Either way, by April 20, the first day of voting, the polls were tightening, and the exit polls that have accompanied each round of voting have since shown a far closer race than expected. (It’s worth mentioning that exit polls have a somewhat dubious track record in India; the final results won’t be known until May 13.)

The uncertainty has left the nation on edge—and the stock markets, which had been anticipating another five years of the BJP’s market-friendly policies, down several hundred points. No one really thinks the BJP, which is expected to remain the largest party, will outright lose to the Congress. But the nightmare scenario—at least for the markets—is that the elections will throw up a hung parliament, with an unstable and short-lived coalition government that is unable to make tough decisions.

Democracy in action

It’s a sign of the times that the nation’s chief concern is economic prosperity—not religious tensions, not regional separatism, and not India’s troubled relations with its neighbors. I’ve been traveling around this week, and what I’ve seen has convinced me that India has shed the austere garments of Nehruvian socialism it wore for the first 40 years of independence. India is today an unabashedly capitalist country.

Two days ago I was in Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, and the epicenter of its booming technology industry. When I was a child, Bangalore was a sleepy, leafy town, a place my family visited for the cool weather. But today the roads are choked with traffic and lined with glass towers, many bearing the insignia of American software companies. There is a palpable sense of opportunity in the air. Young people believe they could be millionaires, and they’re determined to build the next Infosys or Wipro. The optimism and giddiness remind me a little of America in 1998.

I was in Bangalore and am now in Cochin on a hunt for real estate. A friend is interested in building a hotel, and I’m traveling around scouting for properties. Every broker I meet tells me the same story: I’m about six months too late. In Bangalore, one broker told me, property prices have risen by 150 percent in the last year. In Cochin, a tourist favorite, everyone is buying up properties to build hotels. There’s little land left—and what land there is comes at astronomical prices. Even the church, it seems, is getting a piece of the action. One broker in Bangalore, a Christian, muttered that the “bastard bishops” were letting shopping mall developers take 99-year leases on church properties.

Elections are a good time for commercial printers

It’s not just the church that’s sacrificing religion at the altar of mammon. The BJP, too, has been quick to shed its usual religious campaign themes for the promise of economic development. There’s been hardly any mention of “Hindutva,” the BJP’s brand of Hindu cultural nationalism (or chauvinism, in a less generous interpretation). Instead, the party has adopted a slogan of “bijli, sadak, pani“: electricity, roads, water. Vote for us, BJP leaders promise, and we’ll make India an economic superpower. They like to cite a recent Goldman Sachs report that predicts India will be the world’s third-largest economy (behind China and the United States) by 2050.

The Congress’ accusations of urban bias notwithstanding, such promises don’t just appeal to urban technology professionals. Late in the afternoon, I catch a flight from Cochin to Chennai, the capital of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which also goes to the polls tomorrow. The driver who picks me up is by no stretch of the imagination a techie. Yet when I ask him who he’s voting for, he says the BJP. (Actually, he says “Vajpayee,” which is an indication that the prime minister is far more popular than his party.)

It’s the first time he’s voted BJP, the driver tells me, and when I ask him why, his answer is an uncanny echo of the government’s own slogan. “They’ve made it easy to get a telephone,” he says. “And they’ve built great roads. I’m a driver. Roads are important to me.”

The party’s leaders will no doubt spend a sleepless night hoping that it’s not just drivers who care about roads.