India stands at electoral crossroads
By Raja Murthy
India starts voting today, and if one were to believe the hype surrounding the electoral bid by Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), then the polls are a mere formality.
The widely held expectation in India, propagated by a credibility-challenged media, is that Modi is a shoo-in for the post of prime minister. But opinion pollsters and media pundits have not always shown accuracy in understanding subtler realities of the world's largest democracy. They could have goofed up again.
This Monday marked the start of an unprecedented exercise in democracy - the biggest general election in history. The first of 814.5 million registered voters cast their choice that morning in
the north-eastern state of Assam. Polling continues in 543 parliamentary constituencies stretching across nine polling days scheduled up to May 12, with results expected four days later.
According to the Election Commission of India, tasked with organizing this electoral epic, 100 million more voters are registered than in the previous general election in 2009. The increase in new voters is one-third the size of the population of the United States.
India has six recognized by the Election Commission. A total of 1,593 parties are registered with the commission across the nation's 23 states, though not all are recognized by it.
Young voters will have a larger say in this year's vote. "There has been a remarkable increase in the enrollment of electors in the age group of 18 to 19 years," says the Election Commission from its offices in Asoka Road, New Delhi. "The more than 23 million electors in this age group now constitute 2.88% of total electors, against 0.75% in 2009."
Leading political parties have targeted this youthful segment in urban India through a massive campaign launched through social media and the Internet, yet the heart of India still throbs in its 600,000 villages. How the young rural heart beats during the next 30 days will determine who leads India for the next five years.
This, the country's 16th general election, could bring an end to the long-running rule of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, which has dominated India since independence in 1947. Modi's chief opponent, Congress party vice president Rahul Gandhi, has consistently failed to impress since making his political debut a decade ago.
The 43-year-old Gandhi has exhibited more good intentions than ability to turn intent to reality. His first elaborate media interview this January  was proclaimed an embarrassing disaster. It strengthened opinion that Gandhi - son, grandson and great-grandson of three prime ministers of India - might perhaps be better off seeking an alternative career.
According to an NDTV opinion poll published on April 2, the BJP and allies will win 259 seats, with Congress to take just 123. However, other media have been accused in the past of selling editorial space to the highest bidder.
After the last general elections in 2009, senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj said in parliament that "a leading media house" had demanded US$166,640 to publish fake news favorable to her party.
Suspicions persist over the objectivity of media houses owned by businessmen to whom Narendra Modi is a messiah. Like all short-sighted wealth-hunters seeing only riches and not what lurks in dark shadows, they see Modi leading them to a promised land of freedom away from bureaucratic red tape and delayed decision-making. Senior editors of leading publications have complained privately about increasing "pressure" they face from their businessmen bosses against carrying content critical of Modi.
This intolerance for dissent or disagreement feeds fears of Modi turning India into a quasi-dictatorship.  The 63-year-old has not lost an election since he became chief minister of Gujarat in 2001. It's a moot point whether he owes this uninterrupted success to abilities as an administrator or to suppressing opposition with a hidden iron fist. Political opponents in Gujarat have mysteriously died - some have been murdered.
"Modi either buys his opponents or gets them killed," alleged Arvind Kejriwal, the anti-corruption crusading prime ministerial candidate and leader of the Aam Aadmi (Common Man's) Party. True or not, Modi has shown he has the makings of being India's version of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Modi is officially barred from entering the US, over his failure as chief minister to prevent the Gujarat religious riots that killed over 2,000 people in 2002. This could become a peculiar problem for a prime ministerial candidate and the world's two largest democracies. India's Supreme Court has not declared Modi guilty of anything in the pogrom against Muslims. The election results could determine whether the people's court deems him innocent.
If the Modi wave turns out to be a mirage, India could see a hung parliament - since the 1984 national elections, no party has won a clear majority in the lower house. If this happens, India could have a surprise alternative to Modi as Congress and the BJP race to secure the loyalties of enough regional parties to create a majority alliance.