What to know about India’s jumbo election

One month to the day since India began the world’s largest exercise in electoral democracy, here’s some crucial context from the April17 edition of This Week, Those Books. Read here or sign up at https://thisweekthosebooks.com/ and get the post the day it drops

Rashmee Roshan Lall
5 min readMay 19, 2024

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The elephant is a symbol of India’s size and strength. Image by C Rayban, Unsplash

The Big Story:

India begins the world’s largest exercise in electoral democracy on April 19. The numbers are huge:

  • 969 million registered voters, about five times more than America and more than the population of all the countries of Europe combined
  • 2,660 registered political parties
  • 15 million election officials
  • Seven phases over six weeks

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi says it is “the mother of democracy”.

But “great elections do not convert into great democracy”, India’s former chief election commissioner S. Y. Quraishi has said, in reference to the intensifying clampdown on opposition parties by Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The Backstory:

Opinion polls say the BJP — described as the world’s biggest political party with more than 180 million members — will win the election despite a decade in power.

There is rising international criticism of the actual practice of Indian democracy under Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP government:

  • The Washington, DC-based political advocacy organisation Freedom House rates India as only “partly free” in its 2024 study of political rights and civil liberties worldwide.
  • Sweden’s V-Dem Institute, which describes itself as “one of the world’s largest social science data collection projects on democracy”, lists India among “electoral autocracies…such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Russia, The Philippines, and Türkiye” (p. 13 of pdf).
  • The Economist Intelligence Unit, research and analysis division of The Economist media group, classifies India as a “flawed democracy” (p. 18 of pdf).

Many Indians agree. One Indian media outlet has alleged that the “Modi government’s ‘rule by [tax] raids’ [on the political opposition] weakens India’s democracy”.

Other Indians push back against such categorisations. The BJP says they use “distorted metrics” and display “an inherent bias in favour of so-called liberal democracies in the West”.

This Week, Those Books:

  • A magisterial view of modern India’s history.
  • Parsing the Modi effect.
  • A novel on the two Indias.
  • And a bonus — organising India’s jumbo election.

India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy

By: Ramachandra Guha

Publisher: Picador

Year: 2023 (3rd edition)

A highly readable account by one of modern India’s most respected historians. Ramachandra Guha covers India’s testing path from independent nationhood in 1947 — high on idealism and Gandhian philosophy — to the present day when “muscular majoritarianism” rules. He illustrates the difference between India then and now with a 1949 story from Bombay about M. S. Golwalkar, leader of the RSS sectarian Hindu group, and India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. “A hundred thousand people had come to hear Golwalkar espouse the idea of a Hindu theocratic state for India. But in this Maharashtrian stronghold, six times as many came to cheer the prime minister’s defence of democracy against absolutism, and secularism against Hindu chauvinism. In this contest between competing ideas of India, Jawaharlal Nehru was winning hands down; for the time being, at any rate.”

That was then. In the book’s first edition Guha judged India to have a 50–50 chance of making a success of democracy; now he suggests it’s closer to 30–70.

Choice quote:

“‘[The] period of Indian history since 1947’, writes the political theorist Sunil Khilnani, ‘might be seen as the adventure of a political idea: democracy.’ Viewed thus, independent India appears as the ‘third moment in the great democratic experiment launched at the end of the eighteenth century by the American and French revolutions’.”

Making Sense of Modi’s India

By: Various

Publisher: HarperCollins India

Year: 2016

A good primer on the rise of the BJP and its effect on India at home and abroad. Contributors include the Indian-born British economist Lord Meghnad Desai, the BBC’s veteran India-watcher and historian Andrew Whitehead and US-based academic, editor and India-Pakistan peace activist Beena Sarwar.

Full disclosure: Your correspondent, India-born-and-bred, is watching India’s election with intense interest. I wrote a chapter in this book on a non-resident Indian’s view of BJP-ruled India.

The White Tiger

By: Aravind Adiga

Publisher: Atlantic Books

Year: 2008

Aravind Adiga’s debut novel achieved two rare distinctions — it won the Booker Prize and it caused so much angst in India because of its unglamorous portrayal of social inequality that Indians almost forgot to hail him as one of their own. But the novel became a bestseller and then a film starring Priyanka Chopra. The plot is stark. Narrator Balram Halwai is a self-styled “entrepreneur”, who started life working in a tea shop (like Prime Minister Modi). Balram struggles against the “India of Darkness”, one that renders invisible the colossal underclass — the poor, the provincial, the ‘other’ of any sort (Muslims, for example). He gets to the “India of light” — one of globalisation and a mall culture — by dint of his cunning and by murdering his employer. He becomes a “white tiger”, that rare creature with superior attributes, because he refuses to be bound by any moral code except self-interest.

A compelling portrayal of how one man achieves all that is promised by the ‘new India’…ruthlessly.

Bonus read:

An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election

By: S.Y. Quraishi

Publisher: Rupa Publications India

Year: 2014

The author, a former Chief Election Commissioner of India, backs up Modi’s claim that India is the mother of democracy and lays out the tough logistics of organising the country’s periodic trysts with the ballot box. The foreword by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, addresses a key point made by Quraishi: that it’s crucial for India to go beyond “procedural successes to become not just the world’s largest but its greatest democracy”.

Originally published at This Week, Those Books

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Rashmee Roshan Lall

PhD. Journalism by trade & inclination. Writer. My novel 'Pomegranate Peace' is about my year in Afghanistan. I teach journalism at university in London