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Voting in India opens Friday for elections to choose prime minister, parliament

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Beginning tomorrow, some 970 million voters will have the chance to decide on India's next prime minister. India's election is shaping up to be the world's largest and most expensive election, and also one of the most consequential for current Prime Minister Narendra Modi. If he wins, he will be the second prime minister to serve three consecutive terms. Before the seven-week election begins, we've called up Chietigj Bajpaee to help us understand the importance of this election. He's a senior research fellow for South Asia at Chatham House, a U.K.-based public policy think tank. Thank you for joining us.

CHIETIGJ BAJPAEE: Thank you for having me.

FADEL: Now, what are the main issues for voters as they go into this election?

BAJPAEE: So I think voter concerns, I think first and foremost is always the economy, as in most countries. So unemployment is still quite high, particularly among the youth. I think the 20 to 24 age group, it's close to 45% unemployment rate. So even as India has a growing middle class with growing purchasing power...

FADEL: Yeah.

BAJPAEE: ...Some 800 million people are still receiving some form of food support. So addressing the issue of disparity, inflationary pressures. And then I think beyond that, somewhat more esoteric concerns related to India's identity and status in the world, I think, are going to be some of the key issues going into the election.

FADEL: And most polls have predicted a third victory for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP party. What is it about this 73-year-old politician and his party that has captured so much popularity in India for so long?

BAJPAEE: Modi is arguably stronger going into this election than he was in the previous election in 2019. And I think this comes down to several factors. I think the economy is in better shape. India is projected to be the world's fastest-growing major economy this year. The BJP maintains an overwhelming funding advantage over opposition parties. The party has used everything from its Hindutva or Hindu nationalist agenda to efforts to create a rally around the flag effect.

It can point to everything from India's G20 presidency, which took place last year, to India's space program, to its bid to host the 2036 Olympics. All of this as a means of strengthening its position and the party's reelection prospects. And then the Modi brand. This person who is - he's - extremely savvy campaigner. He's used everything from social media to holograms to get his message across. He's really seen to be a man of the people, and no other politician either within the - his party, the BJP, or in the opposition has been able to replicate that.

FADEL: I think listening to Americans will hear a lot that they recognize here in this country. Modi has been compared to a popular figure in the United States, the former President, Donald Trump, who's running again. Would you see that as a fair comparison?

BAJPAEE: I agree. I would say that Modi is more like the U.S. under Trump or Brazil under Bolsonaro, where obviously they may have been in a messy transition of power, but there was a transition of power nonetheless in both countries.

FADEL: On the global scale, why does this election matter beyond the borders of India for countries like China, Ukraine, the rest of Asia, the United States?

BAJPAEE: You know, historically, foreign policy has not really been a prominent electoral issue in Indian elections. But what Modi and BJP have really done, I think, over the last decade, have made Indians care more about India's place in the world. He's tried to convey this message that India's status has been elevated and it's developed a more, you know, assertive foreign policy. What we're seeing, particularly under the current government, under the BJP government, is this attempt to promote India as a civilizational state.

You know, some of that is rhetorical. They refer to India as Bharat rather than India. There's certain terms that have been used. India as a Vishvamitra or a friend to the world, or India as a Vishvaguru or a teacher of the world. But I think there is also a substrative component, this belief that India has some sort of special status and has something to, you know, offer the world.

FADEL: Chietigj Bajpaee is a senior research fellow for South Asia at Chatham House, a U.K.-based public policy think tank. Thank you for your time.

BAJPAEE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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