NEW DELHI – Millions of Indian voters are set to flock to the polls on Thursday for the first phase of the high-stakes Indian elections to elect parliament’s new lower house and choose the next government in the world’s largest democracy.
Nearly 130 million voters of the total 900 million – equivalent to four-fifths of Europe’s total population – are eligible to vote in the first of the seven phases that will be carried out in 92 constituencies spread over 29 states and seven smaller areas known as union territories.
The next six phases will be held through May 19 and results will be declared on May 23, according to the Election Commission of India.
The weeks-long elections, the biggest exercise in democracy in the world, are being held amid heightened Indian nationalism, which has been mainly fueled by the ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP is seeking a second term in office amid slowing economic growth and a record-breaking 6.1 percent unemployment rate – India’s highest in 45 years.
Modi’s main rival, Rahul Gandhi – the scion of India’s most influential political dynasty and chief of the opposition Indian National Congress – is seeking a comeback for his party, which has ruled the country for much of its post-independence era.
The Congress faced its most humiliating defeat in the previous elections in 2014, when it was reduced to just 44 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament.
Modi, largely seen as a polarizing figure, swept to power with his vow to get India’s sluggish economy back on track, striking a chord with millions of voters who gave the BJP over 280 Lok Sabha seats and put an end to 10 years of INC rule.
But five years later, the Indian economy has been slowing down. Agriculture, its mainstay, has been battling a severe crisis with thousands of farmers marching on roads.
In addition, unemployment is at its worst level for the past four-and-a-half decades – a fact that the government tried to bury, though it was leaked to the Business Standard, a respected English-language daily, in late January.
The leak triggered a political row ahead of the upcoming elections after the head of the agency which reviews India’s employment rate resigned. He claimed that the government had interfered and suspended the report’s release, which was scheduled for December.
The three key issues – a looming jobs crisis, sluggish economic growth and agricultural distress – have made Modi’s re-election prospects appear dimmer, especially after his party lost three critical state elections in December last year.
But then there was a bombing in the disputed Kashmir region that killed over 40 Indian security personnel and was claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group.
The Feb. 14 attack, the worst in 30 years of Kashmir’s armed rebellion, triggered India’s military belligerence with Pakistan as the two South Asian nuclear neighbors seemed to again edge closer to the brink of war.
Two days of aerial dogfights between their fighter jets and a heavy exchange of artillery across the border ended after an Indian military pilot captured in Pakistan was quickly freed and allowed to return home.
Since then, Modi and other BJP leaders have been trumpeting a hyper-nationalistic anti-Pakistan narrative in their election campaigns – a message that sells a great deal among Indian voters, particularly when wrapped up in a national security crisis, according to political analysts.
Surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2018 and released on March 25, 2019 showed that Indians largely viewed Pakistan as a threat and believed the situation in Kashmir warranted more military force.
“The recent escalation in tensions between India and Pakistan after the (Feb. 14) attack has turned the long-running territorial dispute over Kashmir into a potent campaign issue for Modi,” the Pew report said, adding that 76 percent of Indians saw Pakistan as a major threat to their country – a view shared by people living both in rural areas and urban centers.
Two days before the general elections were scheduled to begin, Modi, addressing an election rally, invoked the soldiers killed in the attack and asked his supporters to dedicate their votes “to the martyrs who lost their lives in Pulwama (Kashmir).”
The remark was in clear violation of the model code of conduct set by the Election Commission, which bars politicians from dragging the armed forces into an electoral campaign.
In another violation, one of the BJP’s star campaigners, Yogi Adityanath – a saffron-robed monk who heads the state government in Uttar Pradesh – told a rally on Monday that the opposition had “faith in Ali” and “we have faith in Bajrang Bali.”
The polarizing remarks, made with the intention of wooing devout Hindus to vote for the BJP, referred to the Quranic figure Ali, revered by Muslims as Prophet Mohammad’s son-in-law and successor, while Bajrang Bali is an epithet for the Hindu god Hanuman that is widely used in the country’s rural north.
Uttar Pradesh is the most populous state in India and sends the highest number of lawmakers – 80 – to the Lok Sabha.
Yogendra Yadav, a politician, psephologist and academic, told EFE that the BJP, in its push to retain power, was “destroying” the idea of India in “every possible way they can.”
“The government doesn’t want to be questioned on key issues or its performance and the BJP is hiding behind its nationalistic portrayal,” Yadav said.
He said the elections were crucial to saving the secular fabric and plural ethos of India.
“The question is whether India will remain a constitutional republic whose bases are being challenged. And sadly, the Election Commission is playing a mute spectator,” Yadav added, referring to Modi’s nod to the armed forces as a way of scoring political points.
But the Congress, which has promised doles for the poorest families if it gains power, has directed its campaign to economic issues amid reports that Modi’s popularity was surging following hostilities with Pakistan.
Launching what he says would be a “final assault on poverty” in India, Gandhi has repeatedly said in his election campaigns that his party would give 72,000 rupees ($1,040) to each of India’s poorest families every year as part of its proposed minimum income guarantee program.
The program, he said, would benefit 250 million people out of the 1.34-billion population.
According to World Poverty Clock, poverty was retreating in India but nearly 47 million people were still living in “extreme poverty” as of Wednesday.
The extreme poverty is defined as living on less than $1.90 a day. The poverty clock is a model created by the Vienna-based nonprofit World Data Lab to track progress against poverty in real time.