The Players In The Battle For India's Soul

The numbers from India's election are staggering: 814 million potential voters, nine stages of voting over six weeks. They are the biggest in the world. Correspondent Julie McCarthy talks with NPR's Arun Rath about the candidates vying for power.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Once again, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. It's a common line used to describe India, the world's most populace democracy. But you only get a sense of what that means during a national election. There are 814 million voters. So many people in so many places they can't do it all at once. The election is held in nine stages over six weeks. Today they're about half done.

NPR's Julie McCarthy in New Delhi has been following these elections closely. She says voter turnout this year has been substantially higher than in the last national election in 2009.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The interest in this election is enormous. It's been defined as a battle for the soul of India, the direction of the country, the revival of Asia's third-largest economy. So it's considered high stakes and no the least of which, by all those young new voters, a hundred million of them, who want jobs, who feel they have a stake in this election because it's about their future.

RATH: So the two main parties at play in this battle for the soul of India. There's the incumbents, the Indian National Congress Party. They've been in power now for 10 years. And the BJP, the opposing Bharatiya Janata Party, how are they running their campaigns against each other?

MCCARTHY: Well, the Congress Party, Arun, of Sonia Gandhi, the widow of Rajiv Gandhi, was really adrift at the start of this campaign as if they had ceded the ground to the opposition BJP. The fires of anti-incumbency were lapping around them but there was no response. After 10 years in power, allegations of mega billion dollar graft and corruption schemes, there doesn't seem to be a vision presented.

By the time congress woke up and saw this juggernaut coming at them in the form of the BJP and Narendra Modi, it seemed late. Rahul Gandhi, who's the heir apparent to this party, is a neophyte. And he's battling against Narendra Modi who is one of the shrewdest most strategic brilliant PR men that India has produced in decades. And he's hugely controversial as well. He's declared himself a Hindu nationalist in a country where there are many religions and religious tension not far from the surface.

But that's not really the controversy that people want to discuss here. He's stirring the electorate with the promise of change and reviving the economy.

RATH: You know, talking about Narendra Modi, there are a lot of people in India who were surprised to see him poised to become the next prime minister because a lot of people say that he has blood on his hands for not having done enough to stop communal violence in his home state in Gujarat back in 2002. Is that just not an issue for him now?

MCCARTHY: I detect among the mainstream electorate no great devotion to that issue or a willingness to debate about it. They say, look, there's been plenty of riots of a communal nature, I mean, religious in other places. You don't see people going after the chief minister there.

For the most part, the ordinary Indian is unbothered by it, and there are members of the Muslim community who tell me, give them another chance. We need to spur the economy, and he'll do it. That said, plenty of Muslims will also tell you they're afraid of Modi coming to power. And the intellectuals also will fault the notion that this man is going to be elected, because they see him as a truly divisive figure.

RATH: Now, you'd mentioned Rahul Gandhi, the son of former Prime Minister Rajiv, great-grandson of Nehru. He's risen in prominence but has he really caught fire with the people?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, there was this hope that the torch would pass to a new generation, and that he would be the one to lead it. But they're not following. He's too green. He's too inexperienced. And there is a young India out there, and they have very different attitudes from their parents about dynastic politics, which is what really he represents as part of the Gandhi family.

The young people are aspirational, and many would prefer a meritocracy, you know, which is something that Modi himself has brilliantly played up - the former tea server on the cusp of taking power.

RATH: NPR's Julie McCarthy. Julie, thanks so much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

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