Image Credit: ANI

India’s general election, held over seven phases from April 19 to June 1, will see results declared on June 4. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seeking a third term after his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) secured 303 seats in 2019, faces a robust challenge from the opposition Congress party, led by Rahul Gandhi. To counter the BJP, Congress has formed the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), a coalition of over two dozen parties.

India’s staggered election schedule addresses the complexities of population density and potential electoral disputes, particularly in heavily populated states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. This election unfolds against a backdrop of a whole host of challenges from voter participation to electoral independence.

As the world’s largest electoral democracy, India’s election narratives reflect its immense diversity and complexity. The contrasting approaches of Prime Minister Modi and opposition leader Gandhi have become central to the current electoral landscape. Modi emphasises Hindu nationalism, while Gandhi focuses on social justice. These divergent narratives are shaping the election’s trajectory.

Modi’s campaign prominently centres on appealing to the sentiments of the majority population. His rhetoric often highlights historical grievances, positioning the BJP as the defender of majority interests against perceived threats.

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In stark contrast, Rahul Gandhi’s campaign focuses on economic and social justice. His narrative addresses deep-seated economic disparities and social inequalities. Gandhi promises policies to uplift the marginalised and ensure equitable resource distribution.

Economic inequality in India remains stark despite macroeconomic growth in recent decades. The wealth gap between the rich and the poor has widened, with a small percentage of the population controlling a significant portion of the nation’s wealth. India has become more unequal than it was under British rule. This disparity undermines the principle of inclusive growth.

Gandhi’s election campaign involves championing the rights of farmers, labourers, and the urban poor. He consistently criticises the Modi government’s economic policies, particularly demonetisation and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), arguing that these measures have disproportionately hurt small businesses and the informal sector.

Gandhi also repeatedly accuses the Modi government of favouring a couple of big business houses. He calls for increased investment in education, health care, and social welfare programs to create a more inclusive economy.

Employment is a critical issue affecting millions of Indians. Despite macroeconomic growth, India struggles to generate sufficient employment opportunities, particularly for its burgeoning youth population. Rahul Gandhi emphasises skill development, entrepreneurship, and labour market reforms, advocating for investment in job-creation industries and vocational training aligned with market needs.

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Unity and inclusivity

Gandhi also importantly stresses social justice, advocating for the rights of lower caste groups, women, minorities, and disadvantaged groups. For the first time in India’s election history, social justice has become the main election plank of a major national party. Gandhi supports affirmative action policies and initiatives to reduce caste and gender disparities, aiming to build a narrative of unity and inclusivity.

India’s social fabric, woven with diverse cultural, religious, and ethnic threads, faces significant challenges. Caste-based discrimination continues to marginalise millions, denying them equal opportunities and rights.

Similarly, gender inequality impedes the progress of women, who constitute half of the population, thereby hindering the nation’s overall development. Fewer than one in five women in India are in the formal workforce. Regional disparities in development between the North and the South also contribute to social tensions and conflicts.

In his election speeches, Rahul Gandhi prioritises social equality as a means to dismantle these barriers. He advocates for policies aimed at affirmative action, gender equality, and regional development, which are essential for fostering a more inclusive society. He promises a monthly cash payment to the woman of each poor family.

A progressive India

By addressing social inequality, Gandhi asserts that India can harness the full potential of its diverse population, promoting harmony and unity. Economic and social inequality, along with employment, are interlinked issues that lie at the heart of India’s development challenges. Prioritising these topics in electoral discourse is essential for building a more equitable, inclusive, and prosperous society.

The political narratives of Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi represent two distinct visions for India. Modi’s focus on nationalism aims to forge a unified national identity rooted in the majority’s cultural and religious heritage. His politics resonate with a substantial segment of the population.

On the other hand, Rahul Gandhi aims to galvanise support from marginalised communities and progressive segments of society, offering a vision of an inclusive and equitable India.

Choosing Rahul Gandhi’s vision of economic justice over Modi’s election rhetoric is key in my view. That is because Gandhi’s approach prioritises inclusivity, addressing the deep-seated social inequalities that hinder India’s progress. His focus on equitable resource distribution, job creation, and social justice policies promises a more balanced and fair society.

To build a progressive India, the electorate should embrace a vision, where every citizen has equal opportunities to thrive.