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by Rashika Rakibullah
Staff Writer

Early last week, Indian authorities began preparations for the country’s 2014 general elections, a nine-phase, month-long event that will break records as the largest election in history. 814 million Indians are eligible to vote this year in a country that traditionally sees about 55 percent of its population turn in ballots, meaning that hundreds of millions of people will be flocking to the polls in the upcoming weeks to elect 543 people to the Lok Sabha, India’s parliament. The Lok Sabha members will then elect the Prime Minister. This election is crucial: the country faces a stagnating economy, massive corruption, and continuing tensions between its many ethnic and religious factions. Current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Congress Party-led coalition government have been in power for the past decade, so whoever wins this election will be responsible for ushering in a sorely-needed fresh administration.

The election is particularly important for India’s women and girls. Recent events such as the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case and the 2013 Mumbai gang-rape case have brought the condition of India’s women to the world’s attention. Despite its status as an emerging global power, many parts of the country remain isolated, especially in the far northern states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In these rural areas, women’s rights are frequently violated. Female infanticide is common; girls’ education is foregone in favor of young marriage; the dowry remains a stubbornly persistent cultural norm; and domestic violence and sexual assault are under-reported and largely ignored. Even in the larger, urban centers of the nation, women face rampant abuse and sexual assault that is rarely prosecuted (in Delhi, a city of 10 million people, only one person was convicted of rape in 2012). Nationwide, female illiteracy lags far behind the male rate and atrocities such as acid-throwing and dowry killings continue to rise. Women’s rights’ activists have used the election as an opportunity to re-frame the discussion on gender equality by releasing a “Womanifesto:” a set of six demands that they hope the next Prime Minister and his administration will prioritize.

On paper, the three main candidates are similar in their plans to reform and improve women’s rights if elected. All three have pledged support for the Women’s Reservation Bill, which would ensure women a third of all seats on both the national and state legislatures. They have also voiced support for the type of fast-track courts that convicted and sentenced the offenders in the Nirbhaya case last year. The three major parties (the ruling Indian National Congress (INC) whose candidate is Rahul Gandhi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi, and the Aam Adme Party (AAP) led by Arvind Kejriwal) have all paid ample lip service to the need for greater gender equality, but there are no guarantees that campaign promises will be kept post-election. Further, the backgrounds of the two main contenders, Modi and Gandhi, does not give credence to the idea that women’s rights will be a central priority if either is elected.

According to many analysts, BJP candidate Narendra Modi has a good chance of winning the Prime Minister’s seat. The BJP is India’s main center-right party and espouses Hindu nationalism and social conservatism. The popular 63-year-old Modi has been the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat since 2001. The status of women in his state is abysmal: the male-female ratio hints at a high rate of female infanticide, the rate of female illiteracy is higher than the nationwide average, and convictions for rape are lower than in the rest of the country. Tensions between Muslims and Hindus are very high and are exacerbated by the BJP’s Hindu nationalist ideology, called Hindutva.

Such ideology could be dangerous for women throughout India if Modi is elected. The BJP’s deeply patriarchal views towards women ostensibly honors them as mothers and wives, but in practice, this translates into “moral policing” and harassment carried out by its supporters. Additionally, the BJP’s involvement in communal conflicts often results in the additional violation of women through rape and sexual assault during riots. Early in his administration, Modi faced harsh criticism for his alleged role in the 2002 anti-Muslim violence during which 1200 Muslims were massacred and countless women were raped by Hindu Gujuratis. Following the incidents, a Special Investigation Team was assembled by the Supreme Court to look into Modi’s role in the violence. Although no evidence was found incriminating him, many in India believe that he knew the violence would occur beforehand, condoned the attacks, and continued to encourage enmity between Gujarat’s Muslims and Hindus following the riots. Indians voters are right to wonder how Modi will react to such incidents were they to occur while he is Prime Minister, and whether women will truly be safer under his rule.

As his name suggests, INC candidate Rahul Gandhi’s background is quite different from Modi’s. He is the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister; his grandmother Indira and his father Rajiv both served terms as Prime Minister, and his mother Sonia is currently the leader of the INC. His impressive family has not been universally popular: his grandmother was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards while still in office and his father was assassinated while running for re-election by a member of the Tamil Tigers, a Sri Lankan separatist group. Despite being a scion of India’s preeminent political dynasty, Gandhi himself lacks political experience, which makes it difficult for analysts and voters alike to assuage his policy priorities. The INC is India’s most prominent center-left party, known for its secularism and social liberalism, and Gandhi has often spoken of his desire to empower India’s women and young people. However, it is questionable whether he has the political expertise and acumen to transform his ideals into reality. The 43-year-old has only served one term on India’s national legislature and although he is currently the Vice President of the INC, he has few political deeds to his name. Despite his leadership within his party and in youth and student politics, his detractors criticize his image as a thinker rather than a doer as they assail the dynastic nature of the Gandhi family’s presence in Indian politics.

Indian citizens, and especially women, have a difficult decision to make. On the one hand, Modi’s reputation as a conservative nationalist is deeply troubling. However, he does have a few things to boast about—Gujarat’s economic trajectory over the past decade has been the envy of many other states. As India attempts to battle rising inflation and slowing growth, Modi’s plan of improving infrastructure and promoting urbanization (nicknamed “Modinomics”) could help it move past the stagnation it is facing, and his ties with India’s corporate leaders and businessmen could assist with the country’s development as well. For India’s women, further economic development could lead to improved rights and greater freedom and agency. On the other hand, voters have an idealistic and progressive choice for Prime Minister in Gandhi, but his lack of political expertise might hinder his success. Additionally, the INC’s economic policies include various welfare plans in keeping with its ideology of economic inclusion, something many Indian voters are not on board with in the middle of an economic downturn. It remains to be seen which candidate will win and how the status of Indian women will be affected come May 16.

Image by Al Jazeera English