NEW DELHI, India — With 48 countries going to the polls this year, it would be easy to dismiss India’s April general election as just more democracy in action.
But India is different, and not only because it is the world’s largest democracy.
The current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is stepping down which means the world will see a new leader of the subcontinent’s 1.3 billion people. That new leader will rule over nearly one out of every five people on planet Earth.
Favored to win is the charismatic nationalist Narendra Modi, of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, who would be expected to follow a Hindu nationalist agenda.
But whoever emerges as the winner when the results are announced on May 12 will have some tough decisions to make, which will have a real impact on people around the world.
Here are 8 reasons:
1. India is developing a nuclear missile that could reach the United States
Sure, it’s unlikely that India would decide to launch a nuclear attack on the United States. But that hasn’t stopped the country from designing a missile that could reach Alaska. The Agni VI is due for its first flight test in 2017 and is reported to have an intended range of 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles). New York is about 11,500km (7,150 miles) from Delhi.
India already has an intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of 5,000km (3,100 miles): the Agni V which can reach Beijing and Teheran. It has fought wars with Pakistan and China, but the land-based Agni VI missile would allow India’s next prime minister to potentially threaten western Europe and Australia, in addition to parts of the US.
Modi is an enthusiastic supporter of India’s nuclear armory. Last year he wrote that the original nuclear tests, under the BJP’s previous Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, were “very much a test of our political will and needless to say, we passed the test with flying colors.”
India’s nuclear ambition may enable a future leader to lobby harder for a seat on the United Nations Security Council — something leaders of all parties have been keen to win.
2. China keeps invading India
For the past year, Chinese soldiers have made regular incursions into the disputed Himalayan border area of Ladakh in Kashmir.
The tension was sparked by a 21-day stand-off last May between Indian and Chinese soldiers.
That is one of many potential flash points between the two countries, home to about a third of the world’s population. China has a territorial claim on north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, and there has been a long-running dispute about the Brahmaputra river, which begins in Chinese-controlled Tibet and flows into India. A series of Chinese hydroelectric dam projects have made Indians nervous that the river might be diverted to irrigate the dry southern regions of China.
Then there is the Dalai Lama, a symbol of Tibetan autonomy, scorned by China and protected by India. And India has close relations with Japan, whose “soft loans” have funded much of India’s growing infrastructure. Japan and China have a decidedly chilly relationship right now.
Modi, whose popularity centers on his ‘tough guy’ image, has been shy about referencing foreign policy on the election trail, but he made an exception in February.
“China should give up its expansionist attitude and adopt a development mindset,” he said at a rally in northeast India. “No power on earth can take away even an inch from India.”
Of course, it’s one thing to talk tough, another to take on another nuclear power, and analysts believe there is unlikely to be a significant change in foreign policy. But the rhetoric and constant border tension between the two countries is not something the international community can afford to ignore.
3. India is leading the way in superbugs that could harm you
Antibiotic drugs are the cornerstone of modern healthcare, but their “rampant” overuse in India is contributing to a major health problem, according to the World Health Organisation [pdf].
At a regional meeting of the WHO last year, researchers said they had found antibiotic resistance in up to 80 percent of reported cholera cases and up to 50 percent of typhoid fever cases.
Nearly 17,000 Indians have contracted drug-resistant tuberculosis, and as many as 200 million Indians could be carrying an enzyme that makes them resistant to all existing forms of antibiotic drug, according to British researchers.
Antibiotics for humans and animals are available over the counter in India, with few guidelines in hospitals about when they should be used, the WHO researchers said.
Making matters worse, the government isn’t terribly eager to deal with the problem head-on. For example, British researcher Tim Walsh says he was barred from entering India after discovering the New Delhi Metallo 1 superbug in 2010.
“We were banned from India and India had a massive clamp down on sending [biological] strains out,” Mr Walsh told the Wall Street Journal. “Indians were banned from working with me, or anybody in Europe. The whole thing was a systematic campaign to control research into antibiotic resistance in India.”
Meanwhile, India has a large and growing health tourism industry, worth around $2 billion, meaning that people from all over the world travel to its clinics and hospitals, potentially spreading any problems that exist there.
4. A fifth of the world’s billionaires are Indian
Modi is a darling of big business, especially Indian big business. He has appeared on platforms alongside steel and tea magnate Ratan Tata, oil and retail tycoon Mukesh Ambani, and diamond and coal entrepreneur Gautam Adani. They may expect to see a return on their investment in brand Modi, if he wins. Adani controls India’s largest port, Mundra in Gujarat, and hopes that a Modi government might clear away red tape to allow him to expand it.
Investors believe his administration would be much more capable than the present Congress Party-led coalition government. Modi also has spoken positively about foreign investment in India. International firms have complained they operate in uncertain conditions, with Nokia and Vodafone both facing multibillion dollar tax claims and other firms criticizing complex and unevenly enforced regulations.
5. Talented expat Indians who work in western businesses may decide to go home in large numbers if they feel there are more opportunities there
The Indian diaspora has made a major contribution to the economies of countries like Britain and the US. Since the 1990s, the Indian government has been trying to entice them back home, and thousands returned during the boom years of the 2000s.
The numbers returning slowed down when the Indian economy slumped after the global financial crisis, but a pick up in India’s fortunes could see the numbers growing.
Modi regularly makes televised speeches to Indians living in the US. As the chief minister of Gujarat, he has successfully courted Indian expats, known as NRIs or Non-Resident Indians. Gujarati NRIs have funded a large number of public works in Modi’s state.
6. Indian politicians take climate change seriously
India’s economic potential is limited by its poor access to cheap energy. It has few oil and coal resources and its reliance on imported fuel makes it vulnerable to changes in oil prices and currency dips.
Modi is one of the few politicians to have made climate change a central part of his platform. Like former US Vice President Al Gore, he wrote a book about the issue and has pushed solar energy as part of the solution to India’s power troubles.
Around 40 percent of Gujarat’s power comes from solar energy and Modi believes India should focus more on renewable energy.
“The time has arrived for a saffron revolution, and the color of energy is saffron,” he said at a rally in February. “God has showered our country with an abundance of renewable energy. If these renewable resources were exploited properly, we wouldn’t have required mining coal or spending so much on importing crude and petroleum products.”
Using renewable energy would no doubt help cut India’s carbon emissions, but a larger market for solar panels could help boost research into improving solar cell efficiency.
7. Afghanistan is about to become India’s and Pakistan’s problem
With NATO soldiers withdrawing from Afghanistan, the onus is on its regional neighbors to ensure the country continues its climb towards stability.
That would be hard enough — Afghanistan is known as the “graveyard of empires” for a reason — but it also means the next Indian Prime Minister will need to work with Pakistan. Yes, that’s the same country India has waged war against three times since independence in 1947.
There is deep suspicion between the two countries about the other’s involvement in Afghanistan. Pakistan has long held to a doctrine of “strategic depth” — viewing the Afghanistan border area as a place for its leadership to retreat to in the event of an Indian invasion. India believes Pakistani influence has enabled militants such as Lashkar-e-Taiba to use this region as a base from which to launch terror attacks in India. Meanwhile Pakistan believes India is using its growing influence in Afghanistan to aid Baluchistan separatists
While the NATO-led forces were present in Afghanistan, the two countries had less space to operate. As soldiers go, there is the potential for it to become a new proxy for the conflict over Kashmir.
The new prime minister will face a choice between aggressively extending India’s influence in Afghanistan and potentially provoking Pakistan, or taking a more careful approach that might allow China to advance its own interests.
As Gujarat’s chief minister, Modi has been involved in Indian aid to Afghanistan, and he made it a talking point when he met US Ambassador Nancy Powell in February.
As a nationalist strongman, Modi is expected by some to take a tough line with Pakistan. But he may follow Vajpayee in trying to establish a more peaceful relationship between the two nations.
8. Your gold could get more valuable again
Gold is part of the Indian way of life. Every bride expects to receive some gold on her wedding day, and it is seen as a sign of good luck, as well as being considered a safe investment. The demand for gold means India has imported around 950 metric tons (about 1,050 US tons) each year.
But in July 2013, the Indian government raised duty on gold imports to try to solve its current account deficit. The idea was that reducing demand would reduce the amount of Indian currency flowing out of the country.
World gold prices have also gone down, but India has been hit by a massive rise in gold smuggling. Modi and the BJP have criticized the import duty on gold and would probably reduce tariffs or abolish the duty.