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India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, is expected to win a second term in this month’s Indian elections, although Rahul Gandhi’s Congress party may be gaining ground. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Modi re-election likely in Indian elections

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to supporters in Varanasi last week.
Credit: Adnan Abidi / Reuters

JUMBO ELECTIONS

In India, the world’s largest democracy, electoral laws stipulate no citizen should have to travel more than two kilometres to vote. So, on April 23, a team of officials travelled deep inside a lion-filled forest in Gujarat to set up a polling booth for the district’s lone resident, a Hindu priest named Bharatdas Darshandas. After walking less than a kilometre to the booth, Darshandas thanked the officials for demonstrating “the importance of each and every vote”. Turnout in the area, he added, had been “100 per cent”.

India prides itself on its elections, which have been described as the world’s single largest voting event. This year’s election involves 900 million registered voters, 11 million officials, and more than 800,000 polling stations. Voting began on April 11 and continues until May 19. During this period, seven polling days will occur, each in different parts of the country. The electoral commission has deployed 700 trains and 200,000 buses to transport ballots and electronic voting machines, but is also using boats, planes, helicopters, rickshaws, tractors, bullocks, camels and elephants. In some cases, electoral workers must walk for up to three days to reach remote booths.

To ensure the participation of the 300 million people in India who cannot read, each party has a symbol, such as a lotus flower for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and an open-palmed hand for the opposition Congress party. Other party symbols at this election include a light bulb, an umbrella, a bungalow and a ceiling fan. The symbols are selected from a list maintained by the electoral commission, which often leaves newer parties with the least appealing choices. Some of the unclaimed images at this election included an airconditioning unit, a tube of toothpaste and a cauliflower.

Voters will elect 543 MPs to the lower house, the Lok Sabha, which also includes two MPs from the Anglo-Indian community. The official results will be released on May 23. At the previous election, in 2014, the BJP won 282 seats, the largest victory by a party in 30 years. The election is expected to cost about $14 billion.

THE CONTENDERS

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, the BJP leader, is a strident Hindu nationalist – a divisive figure who is venerated by his supporters but has overseen growing harassment and marginalisation of minority communities.

Since 2014, he has angered many of the poorer rural voters who brought him to power. India is the world’s fastest-growing large economy but has not experienced the economic boom and plentiful jobs that Modi promised. He presented himself as a champion of the poor who would tackle corruption and take on the wealthy elite, but some of his policies have hurt those in rural areas. His controversial ban on 500- and 1000-rupee banknotes – designed to reduce tax evasion and money laundering – took a heavy toll on farmers, who often depend on cash at harvest time.

Yet Modi, 68, is expected to win a second term. He has campaigned on his reputation as a tough, unyielding leader and has resorted to blatant displays of defiant nationalism and sectarianism. None of the BJP’s 282 MPs are from the Muslim community of 180 million, which is 14 per cent of the population. Earlier this year, Modi responded to a suicide bombing by Pakistan-based militants in the disputed Kashmir region by launching an air strike on Pakistan, the first such attack by India since the war between the two countries in 1971. He also tried to make political gains from the recent suicide attacks at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, saying that “only” he could defeat terrorism. “Who can do this [prevent terrorist attacks]?” he said at a campaign rally. “Can you think of any name aside from Modi?”

Modi’s main rival is Rahul Gandhi, the head of the Congress party, which ruled the country for decades. The 48-year-old, who is the grandson of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, has accused Modi of failing to address rising unemployment and pandering to industrialist tycoons such as Anil Ambani and Gautam Adani. He has based his campaign on a pledge to reduce poverty, including promises to provide a minimum income for 250 million poorer citizens and to waive debts of struggling farmers.

Often regarded as a reluctant leader, he has appeared increasingly confident in recent months, particularly after his party claimed a surprise victory in three elections in largely rural states last December.

THE BATTLELINES: WOMEN, YOUTH, IDENTITY

India’s rates of sexual violence, gender-based discrimination, and harassment and trafficking of women remain devastatingly high. It is the most dangerous country in the world for women, according to a survey last year by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Yet women have become an increasingly important electoral force. In 2014, 65 per cent of women voted, compared with 67 per cent of men – a gap that has substantially reduced at recent elections. And analysts say women are more likely to be swinging voters because they have traditionally been less engaged in politics and have not yet developed allegiances to the major parties. Both Modi and Gandhi have specifically targeted women. Modi has campaigned on his promise to build more than 100 million toilets, a change that would improve safety, health and convenience for women. He has also created a loans scheme for poorer women in rural areas. Gandhi has promised to build more public toilets and to provide menstrual pads in public buildings. He has signalled support for reserving at least a third of parliamentary seats for women, saying that “generally, women are smarter than men”. But both parties have a poor record of supporting women in politics. Currently, just 12 per cent of lower house MPs are women.

Another crucial demographic at this election will be India’s booming number of younger voters. About half of the country’s population of 1.3 billion are under the age of 27, and more than 100 million of these are expected to vote for the first time at this election. But the government has struggled to provide enough jobs to keep up with the population growth, causing high levels of youth unemployment. Gandhi has attacked Modi for this, yet neither party has clear policies to improve the prospects for younger Indians, including those with degrees. Analysts believe the government is too focused on supporting the manufacturing sector, where jobs are threatened by automation, and should instead boost training in technology and in applying new technologies to dominant sectors such as agriculture, construction and healthcare.

The other looming battle at this election is over Indian identity, and the extent to which India is a Hindu – rather than secular – state. It is a debate that has led to outpourings of hateful rhetoric targeted at minorities, and has been fuelled and exploited by the BJP.

Dr Pradeep Taneja, an expert on Indian politics from Melbourne University, said the BJP thrives on Hindutva, or the expression of Hindu pride, which has become a central feature of its campaign.

“In 2014, Modi and the BJP were not sure how Hindutva would go down with the public and contested on governance and development,” he told The Saturday Paper. “Over the past five years they have not done as well domestically, so they have resorted to the Hindutva agenda.”

Gandhi has tried to demonstrate his religious credentials by visiting Hindu temples and conducting ritual ceremonies. But Taneja says this demonstration of “soft Hindutva” could backfire politically, because it will not win over staunch Hindu nationalists and could lose more liberal voters. Either way, this election is likely to mark a further decline of secularism as this sprawling republic continues its march away from its founding principle – that its unity lies in its diversity. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 4, 2019 as "Authority à la Modi likely to be retained". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.