India at the Polls

From April 11 to May 23, over 900 million eligible voters, roughly three times the population of the United States, will cast their ballots to elect the lower house of the Indian Parliament as part of the world’s largest expression of democratic rule. India’s firebrand and Hindu nationalist Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, seeks a second term in a bitterly-fought general election that is seen as a referendum on the policies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Under Modi’s close watch, India has experienced a consistent deterioration in minority rights, press freedom, and space for civil society organizations at home. Modi’s abrupt and undemocratic implementation of ‘big bang’ economic policies like demonetization have hurt economic growth, worsened unemployment, and damaged the standard of living of the most vulnerable sections of the Indian society. Abroad, India has witnessed a worsening of bilateral relationships with its neighbors like Pakistan, China, Nepal, and the Maldives, all of which has threatened regional stability and cooperation.
It is needless to say that India’s ongoing general election will have global ramifications. These upcoming weeks will determine who leads a rising economic power with a billion people and a potent nuclear arsenal. Despite these tectonic domestic and international ramifications, mainstream news outlets in the United States accord India’s bold experiment with democracy the same kind of nuance and attention as a video of a cat playing with a fur ball on the internet. India is the cat, and the fur ball is its democracy. Deeply entrenched in its bias that only Western and developed nation-states can be functioning democratic societies, American coverage of the Indian elections is chiefly restricted to a sense of awe and surprise over the fact that a poor and diverse country like India continues to remain fairly democratic. Symbolic of the colonial lens with which these news outlets view India, American anchors and journalists seem to be more obsessed with how the election commission in India uses elephants and camels to transport voting machines than substantive issues like unemployment, corruption, and religious polarization. Like cat videos on the internet, India’s democracy is to be naively admired and then immediately dusted aside.
Furthermore, the lack of serious discussions about India’s future as a democratic state also suggests that non-Western, poor democracies are consciously judged by a lower standard. While hours are devoted to meticulously tease out the implications of Le Pen’s rise in the French elections or May’s debacle in the British general elections, no news outlet in the United States takes the pain of scratching beneath the surface of the election process in India. References to camels and elephants transporting voting machines across India’s rugged landscape are enough as it is a miracle that this poor and diverse country is a democracy in the first place. Irrespective of the fact that India has remained a democratic country for over sixty years, it is accorded the same kind of coverage as a new and fledgling democracy.
India implemented universal adult franchise in 1951, decades before the so-called stable democracies of Europe like Switzerland, Greece, and Spain. In the decade in which the United States was vigorously implementing segregation along racial lines, the Indian constitution enshrined voting rights for the most marginalized sections of the society, such as isolated tribes and lower castes. Hence, as India embarks on its seventeenth general election since Independence, it is high time that the country’s electoral process gets the substantive and diligent international coverage it deserves.