Indian women cast their ballots at a polling station outside Hyderabad. Photo: Getty.
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Everything you need to know about India’s elections

On 16 May we'll know the results of the world’s biggest-ever elections – with 814m Indians voting over six weeks. What’s at stake?

On 16 May we’ll know the results of the world’s largest-ever election. 814 million people are eligible to vote in India’s elections, with voting carried out across the vast country over a six week period. The scale of the project is staggering: 11 million people have been deployed to help conduct the elections and 1.4 million electronic voting machines have been installed nationwide, all at an estimated cost of $600m to the Indian government.

So what do you need to know about what’s happening in the world’s largest democracy?

The three main candidates:

Narendra Modi (Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP))

Photo: Getty

In all likelihood, the Hindu nationalist candidate Narendra Modi will soon become India’s next prime minister. Modi’s rise to power has been both unlikely and impressive: the son of a tea-seller rose rapidly through the ranks of the RSS, a neo-Fascist paramilitary organisation with links to the BJP, gaining a reputation as a formidable organiser. Since 2001 he has been the chief minister of Gujarat, where he leaves a mixed-legacy.

On the one hand, he is credited with introducing pro-business reforms that have boosted the Gujarat economy. On the other, many (including Human Rights Watch) believe he was complicit in the 2002 riots in Gujarat that contributed to the death of at least 2000 Muslims and the displacement of many more. Although he denies responsibility, comments suggesting he regretted Muslims’ suffering as he would a “puppy being run over by a car” leave many fearful of his ability to unify India’s diverse, multi-sectarian population.

 

Rahul Gandhi (Congress)

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Rahul Gandhi is the figurehead for Congress, the party of the current prime minister Manmohan Singh. Rahul Gandhi is Congress royalty: he is the son of the party leader Sonia Gandhi and is related to three former Indian prime ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Other than that, Indians have found little to inspire them in the Gandhi princeling, and are doubtful as to Congress’s economic legacy in power.

 

Arvind Kejriwal (Aam Aadmi)

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Arvind Kejriwal is the clear underdog in the race. The former taxman turned anti-corruption campaigner is running on a shoestring budget but with an anti-corruption campaign that resonates with disaffected middle-class Indians. After a surprise victory in Delhi's local elections, Kejriwal resigned after just 49 days as chief minister in Delhi in 2013 after failing to pass through his flagship policy of introducing an anti-graft ombudsman, and his protests stunts including hunger-strikes and rough sleeping divides popular opinion: is he a serious political player able to shake-up India’s murky politics from within, or is he more skilled as an activist agitating from the outside?

 

It’s the economy, stupid

Most commentators agree the key issue in this election is the Indian economy. Economic growth is slowing, and ordinary Indians face rising inflation. The country’s economic liberalisation programmes, started in the 1990s, supported the expansion of India’s middle class and a rising super-elite (India now has 56 billionaires) but according to the World Bank, India is still home to a third of the world’s poorest people, those who are surviving on less than 82p a day. 68.8 per cent  per cent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, and India is in the curious position that more of the population has access to a mobile phone than to a toilet.

A series of corruption scandals among India’s economic and political elite have only highlighted this lopsided economic growth, and contributed to discontent among the middle classes and poorer Indians. In a recent poll, 96 per cent of Indians said corruption was holding their country back, and 92 per cent thought it has got worse in the past five years, a sentiment that has helped fuel the rise of India’s third party.

 

Social change

Although India is still a largely rural population - 68 per cent of Indians live in rural areas, and around half the workforce is employed in agriculture, economic growth and a rising middle class has helped bring about social change. The protests over the 2012 gang rape of a student in Delhi highlighted both the scale of violence against women in the country, the state of women’s rights and the potential power of mass protests. Women’s turnout has steadily increased over recent elections, and a recent poll has suggested that 75 per cent of men and women participating in the election believe the political promises made to advocate women’s rights have been inadequate so far. In the 2009 elections just 11 per cent of parliamentary seats were held by women. 

Last month the Supreme Court in India has issued a new law allowing transgender people to change their gender on official documents to reflect their gender identity. This is the first election in which India’s transgender community are able to mark their gender as “other” on their ballot forms – a move that many hope is a first step towards greater economic empowerment and social recognition.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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