People in India enjoy asking questions. “Why aren’t you eating anything?” a waiter accuses me when I order a cup of tea. “Are you on a diet? You’re thin, no need to do that.” I am used to keeping to myself, but in India no one takes any notice of that. Strangers talk to me all the time, when I’m on a bus or train or while standing in a queue. Sometimes they carry on talking even when I don’t respond.
This inquisitiveness translates well to political discussion. India’s history and identity are steeped in public debate and intellectual pluralism. I was born in India but, at the age of two, left to travel the world with my parents. I specialised in Indian politics at Oxford and retained my Indian passport, because of my wish to return to India one day and get involved in politics. Last month, I joined 814.5 million other Indians — more than the entire population of Europe, including Russia — to vote in the largest election on earth.
The main challenger to the incumbent Congress Party is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). We have a few rules in my family. The first is to try to eat one meal, around our dining table, together every day. The second is to avoid criticising the BJP in front of my grandfather. A staunch BJP supporter, he began tracking the progress of the party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, back in 1995. Now he imitates Modi’s white-haired look. “If Narendra Modi becomes prime minister of India,” he states dramatically, “I can die a happy man.” This is his emotional trump card whenever a political debate becomes too heated.
For many, a Modi victory will be good for business. Economic growth is something Indians crave, particularly young people who are hungry for jobs. India is notorious for its stringent labour laws, and capital expenditure has plunged in the last two years. In Gujarat, where Modi has been chief minister since 2001, the Industrial Disputes Act was amended to allow Special Economic Zones (SEZs) to lay off workers with one month’s notice, and without needing government permission. Because of this, Gujarat saw 60 per cent growth in manufacturing employment between 2000 and 2012. If other Indian states copied Gujarat’s flexible labour laws, argues a report by Goldman Sachs, 110 million jobs could be created over the next ten years, more than forecast in the US, China, Russia and Brazil combined.
Over the decades, Indian politics has morphed into a “divide and rule” strategy, where the creation of “vote banks” based on different religious and ideological affiliations has, unfortunately, become the norm. For me, a successful India would be one that focuses on inclusion, rather than exclusion, especially when it comes to women.
The participation of young people in politics, particularly young women, needs to take place in an environment where women are respected. Sadly, India is still a country where the birth of a daughter provokes the comment, “Try for a son next time.” It is also a country where it is difficult to walk down the street, as an unaccompanied woman, without feeling threatened by a loitering group of men. Delhi remains the rape capital of the world. And although they are illegal, child marriage and dowry persist. Modi was himself forced into an arranged marriage as a child, later leaving his wife to embark on a political career. This decision has now raised questions about his loyalty.
I call my grandfather, who is recovering from an eye operation. “Do you think there should be more quotas to encourage Indian women to go into politics?” I ask. “Enough with these quotas!” he responds. “All communities in India should be equal. There should be no special privileges for women, and for minorities, for the sake of vote banks.”
I’m not surprised by his egalitarianism. As his oldest grandchild, I’ve been treated no differently from the male members of our family. “The way to get into politics, like anything else, is through groundwork,” he continues, warming to his theme. “Look at Modi. He gave public lectures in villages for 27 years before becoming chief minister. Don’t worry child, I have high hopes for you.If you become prime minister of India one day, I can die a happy man.”
I realise as he says this, however, that entering Indian politics, let alone aspiring to high office, would require spending many years, indeed decades, getting to know this vast country of more than a billion people. And a woman whose name isn’t Gandhi would have to work especially hard to be accepted. Though roughly 250 million women will vote in this election, only three out of 28 states have female chief ministers. But the daunting reality of the world’s largest democracy should not act as a deterrent. After all, why shouldn’t I try to make my grandfather a happy man?