India: The World's Largest Democracy Goes to the Polls

India, a country of contradictions, concurrently hosts both -- a third of the world's poor and also the second largest constellation of Facebook fans. The upcoming national election could possibly herald a political sea change: the dynastic rule of Pandit Nehru, our first post independence prime minister from the Congress party who with a short stop gap, was followed by his daughter Mrs. Gandhi, her son Rajiv Gandhi and subsequently his widow, Sonia Gandhi, has been a close political ally of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the current prime minister.

The hot new candidate and potential new prime minister could well be the formidable Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat who has delivered impressive economic indicators in his state. But as always there is a twist and an ugly one: Modi is closely associated with the 2002 massacre of Muslims in Gujarat where 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus died and 2500 more were injured. Further, Modi's roots and allegiance lie with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a pro Hindu party draws much of its inspiration from Hitler and Hindutva.

2014 election could result in tectonic shifts: I am in Lucknow, located in Uttar Pradesh, the largest Indian state with a population of 199 million. I am visiting the Lucknow Mahila Sewa Trust, an NGO, we support through our non-profit, Invest in Muslim Women which focuses on the education and economic empowerment of disenfranchised Muslim women. My first pulse test on the political mood in Lucknow is with my smart taxi driver: he is gung-ho on the Bharatiya Janata Party's presumptive prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi or "NaMo" as he is referred to. Subsequently, other taxi drivers reinforce that they too will be voting for NaMo as he stands for election both from Varanasi, the Hindu heartland bordered by the sacred River Ganges in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and from Vadodara in his home state of Gujarat. NaMo's strategic decision to run from two places has galvanized his Bharatiya Janata Party's cadres.

According to reports, sections of the Muslim population are sounding surprisingly up beat about NaMo's candidacy. Indian media commentators highlighted the fact that young Muslim voters in UP are responding positively to Modi's campaign promise of creating jobs and employment opportunities -- which are sorely lacking -- in Uttar Pradesh. And that is Modi's great achievement in his home state of Gujarat. While Modi's economic accomplishments are a success, it leaves Muslims for whom the Godhra riots and its horrific death toll somewhat anxious about India's political future.

Modi is popular in Uttar Pradesh where he is drawing huge crowds which is in striking contrast to the rallies held by his Congress Party opponent, Rahul Gandhi -- whose family's political roots are entrenched in UP. While it is anybody's guess, which way the electoral chips will fall, most polls have pointed to the likelihood of the Modi led BJP winning the largest number of seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Should this transpire, many Muslims are asking what this will mean for the community vis a vis Modi's controversial track record and mistreatment of Muslims in Gujarat.

So far, what is disconcerting is that Modi has stopped short of a full and complete apology for his administration's involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots which resulted in more than 790 deaths. While Modi supporters say that he has not been personally indicted in any of the legal inquiries into the 2002 killings, his detractors are quick to point out, that NaMo, the CEO of the state aught to have taken moral responsibility -- at the very least -- for the killings.

As we approach the election, there are two noteworthy points regarding Muslim voters: One, Muslims do not vote as a monolithic bloc and two, they have tended to vote strategically in consecutive elections. This effectively means given a choice between, for example, two candidates, both of whose parties are favorably disposed towards the minority community, they are likely to vote on the basis of winnability. In UP today, the Congress which has ruled since independence in 1947 is downright unpopular. The Samajwadi party of Mullayam Singh Yadav is seen largely as a regional party. That leaves Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party, so far also a regional player and the Modi led BJP.

Given this backdrop, the BJP clearly leads in the winnability factor. Many Muslims are now asking whether they should give Modi a chance in UP and see if he delivers on his job promises. All other parties -- whether national or regional -- have clearly not inspired confidence. Additionally, most pre-election polls have pointed to a big spurt for the Bharatiya Janta Party in UP. It is a high-risk strategy for Muslims given Modi's controversial record.

Muslims have a sizeable vote in Uttar Pradesh. Yet, their social indices in terms of health, education and literacy have remained strikingly low. Within the community, Muslim women in particular have been marginalized. In my conversations with the women I met at the Lucknow Mahila Sewa Trust, the women face tall challenges, are frequently uneducated, unskilled and therefore unemployed. Hope this election can rectify things for this population.

Ashutosh Varshney, director of India Initiative, Brown University and author of Battles Half Won: India's Improbable Democracy in his article in the Indian Express explains: While Modi's track record on promoting Hindu-Muslim amity is a negative, Modi with his finger on the electoral pulse rejects ideological purity opting instead for a winning strategy, favoring ideological moderation and political pragmatism as vital for electoral success.

Since the '60s "political scientists of India have repeatedly claimed that Indian politics is marked by what Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph called a "persistent centrism". Ideological purity, of the left or right wing, can produce state-level victories, but to come to power in Delhi, castes, religions, tribes and linguistic groups need to be brought together."

The bottom line in this election is: Will Muslims count in an India with Modi as prime minister or will their rights be abridged? The electoral stakes in the upcoming Indian election are high. Stay tuned.

Khadijah's daughters is a blog by Shahnaz Chinoy Taplin, board president of Invest in Muslim Women, a non-profit project of the Global Fund for Women. Invest in Muslim Women focuses on the economic empowerment of Muslim women, justice and peace. The blog is inspired by Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad's first wife and the quintessential role model for Muslim women. She was the first convert to Islam, the first Muslim woman entrepreneur, a globalist and a feminist.

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