Will India's politicians deliver on their human rights promises this election?

The Indian elections are the largest voting exercise the world has ever seen. More than 550 million Indian voters have gone to the polls to elect a new government in the world’s largest democracy.

The elections have been a potpourri of personality clashes, money power, traditional politics, innovative use of social media, and of course, promises of ‘development’.

Nearly every political party fought this battle on the issue of development. While the parties in power – the Indian National Congress and its allies - offered to correct their mistakes and sought another term to provide 'better development', the opposition – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies - have sought to capitalise on public discontent with the decade-long government, and churned out even bigger promises of development.

What is this 'development' that everybody is talking about?

For most parties, it largely centres around economic growth, which means more jobs and better basic amenities. But any “development” without upholding fundamental human rights will be incomplete.

The challenges facing India’s next government will test its commitment to promoting human rights. While all parties in the fray have unequivocally sworn to uphold constitutional values of justice, liberty, equality and dignity, many have a poor record of doing so in the past.  

And it's precisely because of those poor records that Amnesty International India asked prominent politicians to clarify their stand on specific human rights issues predominant in the country. (Read Amnesty’s Questionnaire to India’s next Prime Minister)

We also asked political parties to adopt 14 key goals to improve India’s human rights record in their manifestos. 

The response has been tremendously positive. Most political parties highlighted serious human rights issues in their manifestos, and put forth poll promises around  judicial and police reform, prompt and efficient handling of crimes against women, and better protection of  the rights of adivasis (indigenous communities).

Three parties, including the Indian National Congress, have pledged to enact a law to ensure that same-sex relations between consenting adults are not criminalized. This is a huge step forward for India’s LGBT community, especially following recent Supreme Court decision that re-criminalized homosexuality.

Two national parties have pledged to abolish the death penalty, and the new kid on the block - the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) - committed to reviewing and reforming the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives sweeping powers to the army including the right to shoot to kill, and immunity from prosecution. In another positive step, the AAP declared that there would be no impunity for sexual violence against women committed by the armed forces.
Both the INC and the BJP recognized prison reforms and prisoners welfare as crucial issues and spoke of ensuring legal aid for prisoners and modernizing Indian prisons, respectively.
These manifesto pledges are a welcome first step and India will have made great strides towards becoming a rights respecting society if these promises translate into action.

But will the new government follow through? We’ll be watching. 

Durga Nandini is Amnesty International India's Senior Media Officer. Follow him on twitter at @nandinidurga

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