The world’s largest ever election has started in India, with voters in 20 states and union territories casting their ballots in the first phase of a marathon six-week poll.
Polls were held in 91 seats yesterday, about a sixth of the total up for grabs, with six more voting days to be held before the results are announced on 23 May. The next swathe of voters will go to the polls on 18 April.
India’s phased election process “allows federal security personnel to be shuttled around the country to secure the integrity of a contest involving up to 900 million eligible voters, more than the next five largest democracies combined”, says The Guardian. In the last general election in 2014, more than more than 830 million Indians were eligible to vote, of whom around 550 million cast their ballots.
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The election decides who sits in India’s lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha, or House of the People.
The biggest battleground by far is India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, where polling stations open on 6 May. With about 200 million citizens, Uttar Pradesh accounts for 80 seats in the 545-seat Lok Sabha, almost twice as many as the next largest state, “making it critical to the formation of any Indian government”, says CNN.
Who are the front runners?
Narendra Modi and his right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are seeking re-election following a landslide victory in 2014.
The main national opposition party is the secular social-democrat Indian National Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi, the latest descendant of India’s most influential political family. Gandhi is the son of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, and grandson of India’s first female leader, Indira. Her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the country’s founding PM.
Most of the other parties are regional or caste-based, campaigning in a single state or region. Yet “even small parties can be pivotal, if no party secures a majority and must seek coalition allies”, says international think-tank the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
What are the main issues for voters?
In the last national election, Modi’s appeal “was based largely on support for a Hindu-centric worldview and his vows to run a clean, corruption-free government dedicated to economic growth”, says The New York Times.
But the Modi government “has not created nearly as many jobs as it promised, and a dearth of professional jobs is also a crucial issue”, the newpaper adds.
The resurgence of conflict with Pakistan has also focused the minds of voters.
The BJP has always maintained that “nationalism and national unity” are an “article of faith” in the party, the BBC reports. According to the broadcaster, Modi “has energised the base with his muscular, unabashed nationalism”, particularly in the wake of a deadly suicide attack in February on a convoy of Indian armed police by a Pakistani terror group in Pulwama, in the contested Kashmir region.
However, a BJP official told The Guardian that while Modi had enjoyed a honeymoon following the retaliatory air strikes against Pakistan, other issues were now becoming more prominent in voters’ minds.
“Pulwama is an old story and people won’t buy it for a long time,” he said. “It has a shelf life.”
Millions of Indians are employed in unstable sectors with few worker protections, such as farm labour or domestic work. In an attempt to win over these voters, the Congress party has said they would give a guaranteed income to 250 million of the country’s poorest citizens.
Under the plan, every family would get 12,000 rupees (£130) a month, paid into their bank accounts - a scheme that if implemented, would be the world’s largest experiment with a Universal Basic Income.
But the BJP has derided the plan as unaffordable. “If you are sure about your defeat, you can promise [the] moon,” tweeted the party’s general secretary, Ram Madhav.
Who will win?
Latest polls suggest that Modi’s BJP will emerge as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha but will fall short of a clear majority. The BJP currently rules as the leading party in the National Democratic Alliance coalition, which many analysts believe will continue to hold a majority.
However, last year the BJP was defeated by the Congress party in regional elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The Daily Telegraph says that “these three ‘Hindu heartland’ provinces are considered good signifiers of how the whole country will vote in this week’s general election”.
The Congress party’s path back to power lies in forming an anti-Modi alliance with multiple regional parties, but that could be difficult to stitch and hold together, analyst Rahul Verma told The Guardian.
“For many of these regional parties, their principal opposition is Congress, and their existence depends on the decline of Congress,” he said.
A BJP campaign official in West Bengal told the newspaper that he believed his party had the edge in terms of party workers on the ground, but that no side was dominating the contest.
“The wind is not blowing any way so far,” he said.
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