Some 900 million voters in India will begin casting their votes to elect a new government this Thursday.
It’s the world’s largest democratic election, and the stakes are incredibly high: Voters will ultimately get to decide whether India remains a secular nation, as enshrined in its constitution, or become a Hindu nation.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are seeking reelection after a successful five years of being in power. Modi and the BJP swept into power in the 2014 elections, with a majority win that had not been seen in 30 years. Since then, Modi hasn’t hesitated to push a strident form of Hindu nationalism that has polarized India.
His main competitor is Rahul Gandhi. A scion of India’s prominent Gandhi dynasty, Rahul Gandhi has often been dubbed a “reluctant politician.” Under his leadership, the Congress Party lost crucial votes in the last elections. However, in a morale-boosting win, the party gained victory in three state elections last December. One recent change which improved the party’s prospects is that Gandhi’s sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who is considered more politically savvy, formally joined the Congress Party and has been actively campaigning.
General elections in India are held on a scale unlike anywhere else in the world, since the country — the world’s largest democracy — is about five times the size of Texas. It will be a lengthy, six-week process, which ends on May 19. India’s new government will be formed on May 23.
But everything kicks off today. Here are four key things you need to know so you can follow along.
1) The main contenders are a Hindu nationalist and the scion of a political dynasty
The two main parties competing in these elections are the BJP, led by Prime Minister Modi, and the Congress Party, led by Rahul Gandhi.
Modi, 68, has often spoken about selling tea to make a living before joining politics, as a mark of his humble origins. Before his entrance to the political stage, Modi was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, a Hindu nationalist organization (The BJP is the political wing of the RSS.) He served as the chief minister of India’s western state of Gujarat for 13 years before the 2014 general election swept his party into power and catapulted him into national leadership as the prime minister.
During Modi’s tenure as Gujarat’s chief minister — which is roughly equivalent to a state governor in the US — communal riots broke out in the state in 2002 in which hundreds of people, most of them Muslims, were killed and their homes and businesses destroyed.
Human rights groups and others accused Modi of instigating some of the killings. A senior police officer in a sworn statement to the Supreme Court alleged that Modi allowed the riots to happen. Modi, however, denied these accusations, and the courts later cleared him of any involvement.
In his speeches during the 2014 election campaign, Modi condemned the US $5 billion beef industry, calling it the “pink revolution.” For Hindu nationalists, cows are sacred animals that need protection, and many states in India ban the sale of beef. Modi’s comment, however, was mostly directed at Muslims who work in the leather and tanning industry.
Once his government came into power, many Muslims were attacked for allegedly eating beef, and cow vigilante groups sprang up in many parts of India to protect the animals. In 2017, Modi’s government banned the sale of cattle for slaughter.
When he released this year’s election manifesto, Modi said that “nationalism is our inspiration,” signaling the direction he plans to take if he’s reelected.
Modi’s main opponent, Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, comes from a famous political dynasty. His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was India’s first female prime minister, and his grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the first prime minister following the end of British rule. His father, Rajeev Gandhi, was also prime minister of India. Both his grandmother and his father were killed violently while still in office.
Rahul Gandhi has promised a “final assault on poverty.” As part of this campaign promise, he has said that if elected, his government would provide a minimum income for the poor and waive off farmers’ debts. He has also promised to increase the education budget, and in an attempt to woo women voters, he said he will reserve 33 percent of government jobs for women.
While these are the main contenders, there are also many regional political parties that have considerable influence in India’s states. An alliance of two parties — the Bahujan Samaj Party, led by a lower caste female leader, and the Samajwadi Party — has come together in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
As elections proceed, this will be an important state to watch, since it has 80 parliamentary seats and will greatly impact the government.
In the 2014 elections, there were a total of 464 political parties and more than 8,000 candidates. This year 2,143 political parties have registered, but not all will field candidates.
2) India’s government is a parliamentary system like the one in the UK
India follows the parliamentary system of governance devised in Britain, known as the Westminster model. India’s parliament has two houses: the lower house, known as the Lok Sabha, and the upper house, known as the Rajya Sabha. The lower house is the one where people choose their own representatives.
There are 545 seats in the lower house, and people elect representatives to 543 of these. The president of India nominates members of the Anglo-Indian community — British people who live in India or their descendants — for the two additional seats. This rule was put in place at the end of British colonial rule in 1947, as a way to give members of this community representation in the legislature.
All Indians age 18 and over are eligible to vote, and the party that gets the most seats chooses the next prime minister. If no single party comes to power, then political parties can come together to form a coalition government. The first such successful government was formed in 1999 and completed its five-year term until 2004.
Modi came to power in 2014, when his party, the BJP, won a majority in the lower house with 282 seats.
3) The election process is an incredibly complex “festival of democracy”
The polling process, which will cover all of India’s 29 states and seven union territories (federal territories under the control of the national government), is a mammoth undertaking. The Election Commission of India, an autonomous constitutional authority, is responsible for administering the entire process.
The size and scale of the elections can be grasped by the numbers involved: More than 1 million polling booths are being set up all over India. The maximum distance from the booth for each voter will be a little over a mile.
At times, polling stations might be set up just to reach one person. In the 2009 election, the Election Commission claimed a polling station was set up in the Gir forest of the western state of Gujarat, home to Asiatic lions, just for one voter. A former chief election commissioner of India, S.Y. Quraishi, said in a media interview that the commission works with 22 official languages, 200 regional languages, and 6,000 dialects, and at times has to deal with tribal warfare and other issues.
Any and every mode of transportation available is used to get to the remote areas, including boats, helicopters, and elephants. Once a person votes, their finger is marked with indelible ink, so they are unable to cast their votes a second time.
The television station NDTV has described this exercise as “a festival of democracy.”
The election will take place in seven phases, meaning there are seven different dates when people will get to vote. The dates will be specific to the region where voters are located, allowing people and resources to be moved around.
Counting will start on May 23, and results will be declared the same day.
In 2014, according to the estimates of the Election Commission, the cost of the entire process was about $552 million.
There is also a “model code of conduct” that governs election rules and ethics. However, other than the official estimates, there are large sums of money spent by supporters that go unaccounted for. Parties receive help with their campaign costs.
The Centre for Media Studies, a Delhi-based think tank, estimates that the 2009 election cost around $2 billion. It estimates that the sum more than doubled to $5 billion in 2014, and predicts another doubling this year.
4) What’s at stake?
When Modi won in the 2014 election, his party defeated the Congress Party-led government by winning 282 seats. The Congress Party, routed at the polls, managed to win only 44 seats.
Modi promised to clean up pervasive corruption and improve the economy. To the youth, he pledged to create 10 million jobs annually. More than half of India’s 1.3 billion population is below 25, and many of those young people enthusiastically voted Modi into power.
But those promises have not been met. Unemployment is reported to have grown to 7.2 percent in February this year. And a leaked government report on unemployment revealed that the numbers were the highest in 45 years.
Some of Modi’s economic policies have also gone horribly wrong. In 2016, he introduced demonetization — meaning that in a surprise move, he pulled all 500- and 1,000-rupee currency notes out of circulation. He claimed it would get rid of corruption, as it would flush out unaccounted cash that had not been taxed. He also claimed that the move would check the circulation of fake currency that was being used to fund terrorist activities in India. But experts say it’s had no effect on this type of money. Instead, small businesses were severely hit.
There are other problems too: Farmers in India have been distressed for years as costs have gone up several times while their incomes have stagnated or even declined. In fact, suicides by farmers because of their debt are depressingly common. Farmers played a big role in helping Modi sweep to power in 2014, as he’d promised to double their incomes.
The BJP government announced it would provide cash support of 6,000 rupees (about $86.22) for individual farmers in its February budget, one of a raft of policies aimed at securing the farmer vote before the election. But that might not be enough, as farmers want more lasting solutions, including better prices for their crops — something Modi also promised in the last election.
When it comes to women’s safety, things have not improved either.
In his 2014 campaign speeches, Modi pledged to make India safe for women. But a 2018 Reuters poll found India to be the “world’s most dangerous place for women.” India was even ahead of war-torn Afghanistan and Syria, which ranked second and third on women’s safety. Between 2007 and 2016, “an average of four rapes” were reported every hour in India, it noted.
Women are an important voting demographic in India. In the 2014 elections, women voter turnout was 65.6 percent, compared to 67.1 percent for men. In fact, in 16 out of 29 states in India, a larger percentage of women than men showed up to vote.
What remains to be seen, though, is whether Modi’s muscular nationalism will be enough to convince a majority of voters to overlook those issues and support him anyway.
The recent conflict with neighboring Pakistan may have helped him in this regard. As anger mounted in India following a militant attack in the Indian-controlled region of Kashmir in February of this year that killed dozens of soldiers, Modi promised forceful retaliation.
His government later claimed it had struck a major terrorist training camp located in the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir and killed “a very large number” of militants in response. Modi’s approval rating surged to 63 percent on March 7 after this action, up from a dismal 32 percent on January 1.
This election might well decide whether the aggressive nationalism Modi has promoted will take precedence over other issues. And that could have implications not just for India but for the rest of the world, which has seen a dramatic rise in nationalist parties and leaders over the past several years.
Kalpana Jain worked for many years at India’s leading national daily, the Times of India, and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 2009.