Narendra Modi could become the leader of an Indian electorate that is far more willing to hold its government accountable. Photographer: Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images
Narendra Modi could become the leader of an Indian electorate that is far more willing to hold its government accountable. Photographer: Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images

The elections that begin Monday in India and unfold over the following weeks will be unusually significant. It isn't just that they'll decide whether the controversial chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, will assume leadership of almost a fifth of humanity. The vote also marks a deep and potentially momentous change in the character of the Indian electorate.

Unlike in previous polls, when huge blocks of voters could be counted on to support dubiously qualified candidates of their own caste or community, more and more of India’s roughly 815 million eligible voters say competence in government will guide their choice.

India's Aspirations

The election will witness a surge of first-time voters -- more than 100 million of them. They grew up entirely in the era of economic reform. They care more about jobs and living standards than identity politics. Rapid urbanization is breaking down centuries-old caste distinctions. In cities and villages alike, a swelling middle class puts economic growth and development at the top of its concerns.

In recent state elections, these voters have rewarded incumbents who made them better off and fired those who didn't. They are no longer awed, or even much impressed, by pedigreed politicians such as Rahul Gandhi, the standard-bearer for the ruling Congress Party and heir to the dynasty that has led India for much of the time since independence. This skepticism may seem unremarkable -- the stuff of ordinary democracy. In India, it's new.

What about the fact that Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party are leading the polls? Doesn't that contradict this optimistic assessment? Modi is nobody's idea of a post-caste, post-communal figure. In 2002, a massacre of more than 1,000 of his state’s citizens -- three-quarters of them Muslim -- occurred on his watch. He was never conclusively linked to the violence, but he has never properly apologized for failing to stop it, and his administration later stymied efforts to investigate. It isn't the record anyone would wish for a man who hopes to lead the world’s most populous democracy.

Nonetheless, the signs are that voters approve of Modi in spite of this history, not because of it. Since 2002, he's concentrated on growth, public services and infrastructure. His current campaign has stressed their value to all Indians regardless of caste or religion. Just how equitably the benefits have been spread in Gujarat remains debatable -- but the priorities have been unimpeachably modern.

As they should be: Rising incomes and increasing urbanization have done more to break down the social and religious barriers between Indians than any number of speeches or admonitions could have. If Modi can keep his promise to revitalize the Indian economy, he will erode the anti-Muslim bigotry that has tainted him and his party whether he intends to erode it or not.

Not everyone in the BJP favors that outcome, of course. If Modi is serious about becoming a leader for all Indians, he will have to do precisely what he failed to in 2002: disavow the conduct of his underlings and discipline his fellow BJP members. His record on this front is unimpressive; BJP candidates for Parliament in the key state of Uttar Pradesh have been implicated in last year's anti-Muslim riots, and Modi himself has exploited the anger at a supposed influx of undocumented Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. Modi’s Hindu chauvinism seems as sincere as his pro-growth instincts.

Many voters seem willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for now, figuring that he’s simply placating the BJP’s base. India’s freewheeling media, independent institutions such as the Supreme Court, and the pressures of coalition politics should also work to restrain the BJP in power. On the other hand, the tensions of coalition politics could work the other way. Terrorist attacks attributed to Pakistan might also test Modi's commitment to govern for all Indians.

Here's hoping the pragmatic new Indian electorate doesn't bring to power an old-fashioned demagogue pretending to be something else -- and that voters, having voted, hold the next government strictly to account for its promises.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.