Why you should care
With 1.2 billion residents, India is the most populous democracy in the world. Here’s a look at past and possible leaders.
In the coming months, a diminutive 63-year-old could topple a three-generation dynasty and prevail in the largest democratic undertaking the world has ever seen.
Meet Narendra Modi, the apotheosis of far-right Hindu nationalism. Last month, India’s main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), named him its prime minister candidate. Elections are due by May, and Modi stands a good chance to win. He also stands accused of complicity in religious violence — in particular, of failing to stop and possibly inciting mass atrocities against Muslims in 2002 in Gujarat, when he was chief minister
Nonetheless, Modi has since become India’s most popular politician. He remains publicly devout, but his mantra on the campaign trail is “toilets first, temples later.” Foreign and domestic investors alike adore his “pro-business” policies, while India’s massive, ever-emerging middle class salivate over Gujarat’s supposedly high growth rates and its electricity surpluses.
Clad in splendid saris, with a striking silver streak in her hair, Indira Gandhi may have spoken softly, but there was no mistaking who wielded the power during her administration.
Gandhi held positions as India’s minister of external affairs, minister of defense, minister of home affairs, minister of finance and four terms as a prime minister. Add to that – despite her leftist sympathies – a consolidation of power in the executive branch, the nationalizing of banks, partnering with East Pakistan in the Pakistani Civil War and screwing over the U.S. on occasion by strategically cozying up to the Soviets when it suited her purposes. The legacy of this towering historical figure is a mixed one. But there’s no denying she was a figure of power.
730 years before Indira Gandhi became India’s first female prime minister, an ailing king in Delhi nominated from his deathbed his 30-year-old daughter Razia to rule his kingdom. Fast forward six months, and the emirs, or male nobles of the court reluctantly made her the sultan.
Choosing to wear a man’s tunic and headdress and to unveil her face to her people as a gesture of transparency, one of her first acts as sultan was to propose a rather democratic bargain with her subjects: If she did not fulfill their expectations, she told them, they were free to depose her. Razia’s four-year rule was brief, but it occurred at a critical juncture in India’s history, and her response to the changing conditions in her kingdom was radical, even by today’s standards.