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India kicks off elections lasting 6 weeks. Here's what to know

People listen to speeches delivered by political leaders during an election campaign rally, ahead of India's general election, in Tiruvannamalai, India, Wednesday.
Navesh Chitrakar
/
Reuters
People listen to speeches delivered by political leaders during an election campaign rally, ahead of India's general election, in Tiruvannamalai, India, Wednesday.

Updated April 18, 2024 at 2:01 PM ET

MUMBAI, India — The world's largest democratic polling exercise gets underway in India Friday. It will involve over a million booths, 15 million polling personnel, and will decide the future for 1.4 billion Indians.

At the center of this election is Narendra Modi, India's prime minister for the past decade, who is seeking a third term.

Voters will elect members to the 543-seat lower house of parliament, and there are myriad national, state and smaller local political parties across the country. The party or coalition that wins a simple majority gets to form a government.

Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, known as BJP, faces a fractured opposition.

The voting will happen in seven phases over more than six weeks. Results will be out on June 4. Here are the keys to understanding the election.

Modi's confident he'll cruise to a third term

Modi, 73, has been prime minister for 10 years — and he is confident he will win another five-year term, by an even wider margin. In the 2019 elections, the BJP won 303 seats in the lower house, known as the Lok Sabha. This time, Modi has set out to secure more than 400.

Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters hold cutout pictures of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a public meeting in Barasat on the outskirts of Kolkata on March 6. In India, Modi's face is everywhere as the country heads to elections.
Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters hold cutout pictures of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a public meeting in Barasat on the outskirts of Kolkata on March 6. In India, Modi's face is everywhere as the country heads to elections.

Modi's supporters credit him for turning India into the fifth-largest world economy and for celebrating its Hindu heritage. His critics accuse him of eroding the secular democratic foundations of India. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Hindutva Watch have also documented incitement, communal attacks and even state-sanctioned violence against minorities, particularly India's 200 million Muslims.

Under Modi, India has forged close ties with the United States. Analysts say the large Indian diaspora in the U.S. and the increasing global footprint of China — an adversary of both the U.S. and India — helped cement this relationship.

His two terms have been a mixed bag.

The Modi government splurged on projects like roads and airports, distributed free food to hundreds of millions of people and initiated cash transfers to low-income groups. But his decision to take high-value currency out of circulation in 2016, and impose nationwide shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020-21, damaged the economy.

As the country recovered, a report by the charity Oxfam found the rich got richer while the bottom half of the population owned only 3% of the country's wealth.

High inequality across India is a concern even as it is projected to be the fastest-growing major economy this year, according to Chietigj Bajpaee, a South Asia senior research fellow at the Chatham House think tank.

"Unemployment is still quite high, particularly among the youth," at close to 45%, Bajpaee told NPR's Morning Edition. "Even as India has a growing middle class with growing purchasing power, some 800 million people are still receiving some form of food support."

Through the past decade, however, analysts say the BJP's strategic use of Hindu nationalism — and Modi's cult of personality — has helped it coast through the worst of crises. The government put up Modi's mugshots everywhere — from advertisements in newspapers and on TV touting government programs, to cardboard cutout images of him for citizens to use as selfie props. Several of Modi's loyal ministers' handles on X, formerly Twitter, identify them as "Modi's family."

The governing party has increased pressure and influence over the country's news media, which fear a government crackdown. Some lawyers and former judges say an analysis of cases and rulings suggests a cowed, timid justice system that bends to the influence of the prime minister's allies.

But criticism that India is sliding toward authoritarianism seems to make little difference.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to supporters from atop a vehicle during a road rally held by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Bengaluru on May 6, 2023.
Manjunath Kiran / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to supporters from atop a vehicle during a road rally held by the Bharatiya Janata Party in Bengaluru on May 6, 2023.

A recent Pew Research survey holds clues on why: It found 85% of Indians think military rule or an authoritarian leader would be good for their country.

What about the opposition parties?

India's political opposition is struggling. A coalition formed last year of 40 opposition parties has fractured. The president of the main opposition Congress party, Mallikarjun Kharge, is a veteran politician but lacks Modi's mass appeal. Despite being the coalition's chairman, Kharge isn't their candidate for prime minister and they have yet to name one. As a result, they lack a satisfactory answer for what many fence-sitters ask: "If not Modi, then who?"

Meanwhile, the Modi government has cracked down against members of this coalition. Congress party's bank accounts have been frozen over alleged unpaid dues, some dating back to 1995-96. The chief of another party in the coalition has also been arrested on corruption allegations around a liquor policy in India's capital.

The opposition says these moves were politically motivated. But Modi has said he is working to "eradicate corruption."

Will the elections be free and fair?

The integrity and outcome of India's polling process is largely respected by international observers. But in the run-up, parties often indulge in practices that violate election codes.

The election commission says polling in India carries four main challenges: violence, misinformation, violations of good conduct (such as personal insults of political opponents) and bribery. In the past four weeks alone, the body has seized suspicious money, liquor, drugs and other inducements worth half a billion dollars from across India.

But the election commission come under scrutiny. In a letter to the commission last week, 87 retired civil servants criticized the commission for failing to silence what they call the government's "politics of vendetta" or to penalize it despite evidence of election law violations by the party. The commission has denied accusations of bias.

Separately, an opposition leader accused the government of rushing through two appointments to the three-headed election commission.

A scandal over donations is a stumbling block for BJP

In 2018, the BJP introduced "electoral bonds" that allowed individuals and corporations to donate money to political parties anonymously. Over the next five years, the party became India's richest, taking in over half of $1.5 billion in total political donations raised between all parties.

In February, the Supreme Court scrapped the program and ordered the donor details to be made public. Indian newsrooms reporting on this found apattern: At least 21 companies — both big and small — donated around $130 million, often after raids by law enforcement agencies.

Modi, who led an anti-corruption campaign to win office in 2014, has defended the bonds saying they were meant to tackle off-the-books funding.

It remains to be seen if the scandal will halt the Modi juggernaut. But analysts say the contest has gotten more competitive.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Omkar Khandekar
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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