India begins voting in gigantic election as Modi seeks historic third term

Published April 19, 2024
Women stand in a queue outside a polling station to cast their ballot during the first phase of voting for the India’s general elections in Parbatsar in Rajasthan, on April 19. — AFP
Women stand in a queue outside a polling station to cast their ballot during the first phase of voting for the India’s general elections in Parbatsar in Rajasthan, on April 19. — AFP
A voter casts her ballot at a polling station in the first phase of voting for the India’s general election in Chhindwara on April 19. — AFP
A voter casts her ballot at a polling station in the first phase of voting for the India’s general election in Chhindwara on April 19. — AFP

India began voting on Friday in the world’s largest election as Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks a historic third term in office on the back of growth, welfare, his personal popularity and Hindu nationalism.

The vote pits Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against an alliance of two dozen opposition parties which is challenging him with promises of increased affirmative action, more handouts and what they say is the need to save democratic institutions from Modi’s dictatorial rule.

The gigantic exercise involving almost one billion voters will be spread over seven phases across the world’s most populous country at the peak of summer. It ends on June 1 and votes will be counted on June 4.

On Friday, in the largest of the seven phases, 166 million voters in 102 constituencies across 21 states and territories will vote, including in Tamil Nadu in the south, Arunachal Pradesh on the Himalayan frontier with China, and the most populous Uttar Pradesh in the north.

Voters began lining up outside polling stations much before they opened at 7:00am (0130 GMT) amid tight security, including senior citizens who needed help to reach the booths.

“Modi will come back to power, because apart from the religious push, his other work, including on safety and security is good,” said Abdul Sattar, 32, a Muslim voter in Uttar Pradesh’s Kairana, about 100km from Delhi.

Mohammed Shabbir, a 60-year-old driver and father of eight, said unemployment was the main issue for him as none of his children have regular jobs.

Hindu nationalism is not an issue in this election, “because even the Hindus are affected by a lack of jobs”, he said.

Surveys suggest BJP will easily win a majority even though voters have serious concerns about unemployment, inflation and rural distress in the world’s fastest-growing major economy, with the spotlight being on whether BJP can improve on its 2019 victory and by how much.

“In the next five years, we will take our nation into the top three economies of the world, launch a final and decisive assault against poverty, open up newer avenues of growth […] unveil the next generation of reforms, and take a number of pro-people decisions and actions,” Modi wrote in the BJPs election manifesto.

The manifesto and the theme of the BJP campaign is titled “Modi Ki Guarantee”, or Modi’s guarantee, to fulfil promises made to voters, underlining the unusual leader-centric, presidential-style pitch in a parliamentary system.

“I urge all those voting […] to exercise their franchise in record numbers,” Modi posted on X, minutes before polling began.

“I particularly call upon the young and first-time voters to vote in large numbers. After all, every vote counts and every voice matters,” he said.

Opposition weak, fragmented

If he wins, Modi will be only the second Indian prime minister to be elected three times in a row, after post-independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.

Modi says that his first two terms were appetisers and the main course will be served in the third term. BJP hoardings across towns and cities highlight a range of achievements in his two terms, including India’s historic landing on the moons south pole and fighting corruption to woo voters.

Hindu nationalism is a key theme. Modi’s government and BJP are accused by critics of discriminating against or targeting India’s 200 million minority Muslims to please their hardline Hindu base — charges both deny. Sporadic violence between Hindus and Muslims continues to break out.

The opposition INDIA alliance says the election is an ideological battle being fought to stop the BJP from ending the constitutional and democratic system.

Rahul Gandhi, leader of the main opposition Congress party, said the BJP always seeks to divert attention from major issues such as unemployment and price rise.

“Sometimes the PM goes underwater in the ocean and sometimes he is on a seaplane but does not talk about issues,” Gandhi said, referring to Modi’s widely publicised engagements in recent months.

While the alliance has struggled to forge unity and field common candidates against the BJP, it has accused the government of denying it a level playing field by arresting opposition leaders in corruption cases and making huge tax demands ahead of the vote — charges the government denies.

Chandrachur Singh, who teaches politics at Delhi’s Hindu College, said the BJP has a clear edge but also faces real challenges.

“It’s not an election where there are no issues,” he said. “There are issues which could have led to anti-incumbency. But that is something which is not being channelised or harnessed by a fragmented, divided, weak opposition,” he said.

“That is what is causing some kind of disillusionment among voters and allowing BJP to surge ahead.”

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