The United States has had a relatively easy time with India in recent years with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the experienced Congress Party in power.
National elections, which started Monday and continue until May 12, are predicted to bring about a major change in the party in power and in its head, Narendra Modi, who is likely to replace Mr. Singh as prime minister.
The Indian elections are the most important development in the subcontinent right now, surpassing even the Afghanistan elections and the violence in Pakistan. India’s economy sets the regional pace. Although its growth has fallen to 5 percent, such a rate is the envy of the United States. With a population of 1.2 billion, India is the world’s largest democracy. One reason its elections stretch over five weeks is that it has 815 million eligible voters and turnouts as high as 60 percent.
The outcome, of course, will not be known until the votes are counted. Nonetheless, there is a general feeling that the leadership of the Congress Party, with a ticket headed by Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister, has run out of gas in the eyes of the electorate, 100 million of whom became voters in the last five years. The country is more urbanized, increasingly literate and more interested in economic prospects than in older concepts of class and tradition.
Mr. Modi and his party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata, offer change — and possibly problems. Mr. Modi had a spectacular rise from tea-seller to major business success. His economic message is that if he could do it, so can others. But he has a reputation as a Hindu extremist, not having played a responsible role in controlling Hindu violence against Muslims, including as chief minister of Gujarat state. India has 162 million Muslims, 13 percent of the population.
Muslims are also in power in troubled Pakistan and turbulent Afghanistan. India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons. Their differences, including over Kashmir and alleged sponsorship of each other’s enemies, remain raw and largely unaddressed by the United States or anyone else. America must watch these elections closely and quickly establish good understanding with whoever wins. For now, the storm flags are up.