BBMP Engineering ward office, Bangalore Central polling booth
Citizens line up at a voting center in Bangalore, India, on April 17, 2014. Kukil Bora

BANGALORE, India -- During the busiest day thus far in India's multi-stage 2014 elections, voters turned out in record numbers to cast ballots for a diverse array of candidates that includes billionaires and anti-corruption crusaders sparring over issues ranging from gang rape to the role of Wal-Mart in one of the world's most dynamic yet troubled economies.

As the nation approaches the midway point of its election process, voters were chiefly focused on determining which candidate would be able to correct the economy's wayward drift after it had emerged as a global leader. Among the candidates wooing voters was Nandan Nilekani, the beleaguered Congress party's choice, who is from the south of Bangalore and is perhaps best known outside India as co-founder of software giant Infosys (NYSE:INFY). Nilekani is the richest candidate, with declared assets worth about 77 billion rupees (US $1.3 billion).

“My prospects are excellent," the technocrat-turned-bureaucrat-turned-politician proclaimed at a voting center press gathering in Bangalore, the nation's technology hub and capital of Karnataka, on Thursday, the biggest day for the 2014 elections with polling scheduled across 12 states, including three that are key: Karnataka, Maharashtra and West Bengal. "People want change and will vote for me,” he added, echoing a campaign boast familiar to voters around the world.

Across town, V. Balakrishnan, the former chief financial officer of Infosys, who has campaigned against his former colleague Nilekani, represented the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is hoping to ride an anti-corruption wave that swept the party to power in Delhi's state elections in December.

Balakrishnan, who was accompanied by his 18-year-old daughter, who was voting for the first time, earlier told International Business Times that his party wants to “provide honest, clean governance” and focus on improving law and order, reforming the judiciary and eradicating corruption.

As campaign platforms go, Balakrishnan's also has a familiar ring, but it carries particular relevance in India, where breakneck growth is being undercut by corruption and crime. Less than a decade ago, it seemed there would be no stopping India. Grand descriptors such as “Incredible India” and “India Shining” were bandied about in the media as politicians touted the promise of transforming local cities into the subcontinent's version of Singapore and Shanghai.

But corruption, lackadaisical leadership, uncontrollable inflation, crime and half-hearted attempts at reform have waylaid the country on its path to progress and have become touchstones for the ongoing elections. India's massive election process began on April 7 and continues until May 12, during which more than 800 million eligible voters are expected to cast their votes in the staggered, nine-phase process. Any party or a coalition of parties needs at least 272 seats of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house in the parliament, to form the federal government.

Apoorva Goyal, a 24-year-old architect who was at the same polling station as Nilekani, told IBTimes: “We need a strong leader to take us forward. I’m voting for change and I think all of us here are voting just for that. We are sick of no development, false promises and corruption.”

Many of the actors in this high-stakes drama are now familiar names, even to those outside the country who are observing the government's impending transformation. At nearly $5 billion, this is the most expensive election in India's history, and second only to the U.S. presidential campaign in 2012 in expenditures. India’s citizens, usually disillusioned by its polity, are expected to vote in record numbers, led by a politically aware youth, who arguably have the most at stake in the outcome.

The candidates, armed with manifestos and social media tools, have crisscrossed the vast subcontinent on custom-designed campaign buses to convince people that they’re the ones to resurrect India. It is, not surprisingly, a tough sell.

Issues, Ideas And Ideologies

Slowing growth, corruption and race relations are the most important issues, and the party that most convincingly promises to address them will have a realistic shot at forming the next federal government in June.

Last year, India’s economic growth slowed to a pace not seen in a decade. Growth in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), which averaged about 9.5 percent between 2005 and 2008, slowed to below 4.5 percent in 2012-2013, according to data from the government's planning commission.

“India’s global image as an emerging market has taken a hit over the past few years. Now, the economic image of India as a decisive power needs to be re-established,” said Rajesh Chakrabarti, a professor of public policy at the Indian School of Business.

Meanwhile, inflation has been uncontrollably high despite attempts by the country’s central bank to sacrifice short-term growth by keeping interest rates high to bring down inflation.

High food prices, hostage to fickle rains and creaking transport and warehouse infrastructure, have kept consumer inflation high. In March, India’s annual consumer price inflation rose yet again to 8.31 percent, up from a 25-month low of 8.1 percent in February.

Food inflation “is a kick in the belly of the poor of the country, who amount to one in four people,” Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, an author and political analyst, told IBTimes. “This problem has not only eroded the incomes of the poor but also widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots. This is the single biggest failure of the second UPA government,” he added, referring to the second-term of the United Progressive Alliance coalition, led by the Congress party.

Corruption is also on voters’ and candidates’ minds following a string of scams involving politicians and bureaucrats. Two of the biggest recent scams, which according to some estimates cost the nation's treasury about $60 billion in revenues, involve senior government officials and bureaucrats awarding telecom spectrum and coal-mining permits to preferred bidders at steep discounts.

“The manner in which those in power have abused their positions to earn money illegally is one of the most worrisome topics at hand,” Guha Thakurta said. “I will not be surprised if we see a new government in power in New Delhi.”

While the Congress and its allies, who have been in power since 2004, have to address allegations of spectacular corruption under its watch, its main contender, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has to deal with accusations of inaction at best, or cooperation at worst, in race riots in the western Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, which claimed the lives of nearly 800 Muslims, according to official figures.

The BJP’s prime ministerial nominee, Narendra Modi, has struggled to rid himself of the stigma, even after Indian courts exonerated him of involvement in the incident.

Supporters of Modi, who is leading in various opinion polls, point to his record of converting his native state of Gujarat, of which he has been chief minister since 2001, into a corruption-free and business-friendly corner of India. And Modi himself, who in the past refused to address the riots issue, has struck a conciliatory note as the polls drew nearer.

Modi’s BJP party, which is known for its affiliations to regional parties with extreme right-wing ideologies, has even included a point in its election manifesto that speaks of a “National Madrasa modernization” program to build madrassas, or Islamic schools of learning, around the country.

However, race relations could remain a significant obstacle for Modi and his party to overcome in a country that is home to the second-largest Muslim population in the world.

“On the one hand, BJP will gain from the projection of a strong leader; on the other hand, BJP will lose on accusations of Modi being an anti-minority leader, as the memories of the 2002 riots are not going to fade away,” ISB’s Chakrabarti said.

Elections And The Financial Markets

Some of Modi's biggest supporters are among India's corporate leaders and members of the financial services industry, who admire his pro-business policies and hope that he can replicate Gujarat's success around the country.

The party’s election manifesto speaks of building a “globally competitive economy” and an “innovative and technologically driven society” led by the country’s youth and supported by transparent government and strong institutions. Meanwhile, Congress has focused on inclusive growth along with the usual buzzwords such as infrastructure, manufacturing growth and governance reforms.

These issues resonate across demographics, and their effect can be seen especially on the nation’s stock exchanges, which have rallied on the promise of reform. Over the past six months, local stock markets are up 16 percent.

“If either [Congress or BJP] wins an absolute majority or near-majority along with like-minded affiliates, the markets will react positively,” Waqar Naqvi, CEO of Mumbai-based Taurus Mutual Fund, told IBTimes in an email. “However, in case of a fractured mandate or the opinion polls going wrong, which they did in 2004 and 2009, then we will slide in the market indices for sure.”

A research report from Swiss banking major UBS states that “discussions with investors indicate that markets are hoping for a Modi-led BJP Govt,” while a report from Bank of America-Merrill Lynch expects “markets to be 10 percent higher than current levels by year-end.”

Pavan Srinath, head of policy research at The Takshashila Institution, a Bangalore-based think tank, told IBTimes: “The single-point agenda for the next union government is unleashing economic growth. Returning to 8 percent growth and reviving economic activity in India will also render many of the other issues less salient. To achieve this, the next government will have to usher in a second generation of liberalization and Reform 2.0. Urban concerns such as jobs, inflation, infrastructure and public services have become more important. The new government will have to start addressing these on a priority basis."

However, some worry that campaign promises might not withstand the harsh realities of governance and policymaking.

“Key challenges will be money, availability of land, and in the case of BJP, if Modi becomes the PM, the ability to work with bureaucracy in Delhi,” Robinder Sachdev, president of The Imagindia Institute, a New Delhi-based policy think tank, told IBTimes in an email.

“Modi will have a steep learning curve – with India’s federal structure, it will be different than running a state government. He may not be able to implement at the pace he hopes,” Sachdev said, and warned of vested interests in political and business spheres that could derail promises made on the campaign trail.

Social Issues And Financial Inclusion

The brutal rape of a 23-year-old woman in a New Delhi bus in December and her subsequent death galvanized an entire nation to demand an overhaul of law and order in a country that seems perennially partial to those in power. Allegations of sexual exploitation in the workplace and reports of other gang rapes, some involving foreign tourists, focused the world’s attention on the country with unusual intensity.

The parties, with an eye on the change in public sentiment regarding social issues, especially women’s safety, law and order and the judiciary, have added them to their campaign manifestos.

“Removing gender bias and ensuring safety and compulsory education for women will definitely help create a more civilized society in the nation,” Umesh Prasad, a teacher and brand consultant, told IBTimes in an email, and called for better representation of women in urban and rural governments.

The Congress party calls for a third of the seats in parliament to be reserved for women and fast-track courts, while AAP's manifesto seeks a minimum 50 percent vote for women in rural and local governments and promises to ensure “secure, dignified, remunerative employment for women.”

“For a huge country like India already reeling under the weight of lawlessness, corruption and a criminalized political class, proper management of the police force with lack of political interference is the need of the hour,” Prasad said.

Meanwhile, as the gap between rich and poor grows in the country even as the poverty rate has seen a marked decline over the last decade, political parties are attempting to appeal to rural voters by promising job creation and better access to services such as banking, health care and education.

“The government of tomorrow should focus on sectors such as agriculture and rural employment,” Prasad said, adding: “Vast areas of agricultural lands are being diverted to other purposes in the name of industrialization.”

Prasad, like the BJP and AAP, opposes the entry of foreign retailers into the country, arguing that such an influx could rob millions of Indians of their livelihood. It’s unclear how Modi’s pro-reform, business-friendly campaign platform can be reconciled to his party’s stance in this regard.

“It is unfortunate that the BJP is opposing FDI in retail. I believe either the BJP will see reason or else companies like Wal-Mart and IKEA will have to figure out different models for India or exit India,” Naqvi said.

Abhijiit Ray, co-founder and managing director of Bangalore-based Unitus Capital, which channels funds to enterprises serving the bottom of the pyramid, says the next government should work to strengthen the small-business sector by enabling greater partnerships between public and private entities.

“There are plenty of social enterprises coming up with good business plans and social motives, but they struggle to get funding,” Ray told IBTimes, adding that because private equity investors are not comfortable financing such ventures at an early stage, the government should step in to fill the gap. “Incubation funds are a very good example of how to do this, and support from the government will help scale up these efforts by encouraging private investors to jump in.”

While India’s citizens are long on optimism and hope, there is a strand of skepticism that comes from decades of apathy displayed by politicians who are largely perceived as opportunistic vote gatherers.

“There is a hope that these issues will be dealt with, but only time will tell whether all that has been promised to people will become a reality or not,” Dhanvanthi Jain, president of Awake, a Bangalore-based nonprofit, said.

Foreign Policy And External Relations

India’s standing and its relations with allies have suffered following the government's preoccupation with rescuing economic growth, leaving China to emerge as the main influencer in the region. And there is a growing sense of urgency for the country to reestablish its status as a dominant emerging market to win back investors and diplomatic allies.

“The new government must engage in a very aggressive way on economic diplomacy. The future of strategic relations is now woven with economic interests, and India must radically build its capacity for economic diplomacy,” Sachdev said.

The subject of U.S.-India relations, which have become increasingly strained over the past few months, especially over the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York on a visa fraud charge, could turn a shade darker if Modi, who was refused a visa by the U.S. in the past, continues to be given the cold shoulder.

“If Modi [becomes] the prime minister, it will be important to see if he visits the U.N. General Assembly at New York in September. If he goes, then the U.S. must invite him to the White House to repair its relationship with him that got clouded due to the visa issue,” Sachdev said.

“The sooner the U.S. administration engages with Modi, the better. If high-level meetings, summits are delayed, then a Modi government in India may slowly distance itself from the U.S.”

Reforms In Governance

The call for reforms from a rejuvenated electorate, which at times seems to have taken its cues from the fervor of the Arab Spring, have grown more strident. And the country's youth, millions of whom will continue to join the job market while India risks frittering away its demographic dividend, seem more invested than ever in the election's outcome.

"The core issue of our country is the corruption at all levels. Government should be transparent, stable and should have the courage to fight against corruption, which is significantly high among bureaucrats and politicians,” said a young executive who works at Bangalore-based Flipkart, the country's most successful online retailer. “More employment opportunities and better educational facilities should be created. Youngsters should get more opportunity in governance.”

According to G. Ramesh, a professor of public policy at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, or IIM-B, one of the country's premier business schools, good governance is crucial for implementing meaningful reforms such as those youthful voters in particular are pushing for. “Good governance is more important than operational efficiency. Good governance is more important than development work,” he said.

Waiting For June

Any party or coalition of parties needs at least 272 seats of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house in the parliament, to form the federal government.

There is a widespread feeling that the Congress party will find it a challenge to convince voters to give it a third chance, and BJP's Modi is the clear favorite, according to the various polls conducted across the country. At the same time, there's general agreement that no single party will win a clear majority, which means a coalition government with a major national-level party leading a handful of regional allies.

While a coalition government could be handicapped by various factions jockeying to push their personal agendas, it's also seen as more representative of an extremely diverse electorate whose local and regional interests could otherwise be overlooked by the government in far-away Delhi.

“India struggles because of policy issues, policy bias and vested interests. If you take those apart, tell me which country has such huge potential,” Unitus' Ray said.

Regardless of who comes to power in June, skeptics and optimists agree that the next government will have its work cut out as it begins the long and arduous -- but not unachievable, as most insist -- journey of making India incredible again.

“The most damning condemnation [of the current government] has been the policy paralysis. Ultimately economics and necessity will drive the outcome and not so much the ideologies,” said IIM-B's Ramesh.