The world’s largest election
India is holding general elections over the next five weeks. What’s at stake?
How many can vote?
The world’s most populous democracy, India has 900 million eligible voters. The country can’t handle all of them voting at once, so they will cast ballots in seven phases spread over five weeks. More than 1 million polling places will be set up (the U.S., by contrast, has about 117,000), partly because of India’s vast size, and partly because of a law that says that no citizen should have to travel more than 1.25 miles to vote. Voters will choose representatives in the Lok Sabha, the lower and more powerful house of the legislature, for five-year terms, and the party or coalition that holds a majority of the 543 seats will select the prime minister. In the last national election, in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got an outright majority of seats—the first time in decades a single party had done so.
How was his first term?
Modi promised sweeping economic reforms to lift farmers out of poverty and to create the 1 million jobs India needs to add every month to accommodate its rapidly growing workforce. He achieved neither. Despite India’s relatively good economic growth rate of about 6.6 percent, agriculture—which employs nearly half the workforce—is growing at just 2.7 percent. Income inequality is massive, with about 800 million Indians still living in poverty. Modi’s government has been accused of trying to hide the unemployment rate, which reached a 45-year high in 2017. When 62 low-level government jobs were posted in Uttar Pradesh state, 93,000 people applied, while a staggering 23 million put in for 90,000 openings at Indian Railways. Modi has, however, succeeded in his other main campaign promise: to push Hindutva, or Hindu supremacy, in a land where 20 percent of the people adhere to Islam, Sikhism, or other religions.
What form does Hindutva take?
It’s the nationalist belief that India is a Hindu nation that should be governed by Hindu values. Modi is an aggressive nationalist who, as governor of Gujarat in 2002, was accused of condoning a pogrom that left more than 1,000 Muslims dead. As prime minister, he continues to belong to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a group that seeks to outlaw all killings of cows, which are sacred to Hindus. Muslims in India are currently allowed to eat beef in most, but not all, states. Modi has frequently accused the opposition Congress Party of seeking a “pink revolution,” a reference to blood from slaughterhouses, and called it the party of Muslims. Modi has also spent millions on public works to glorify Hindu heroes and downplayed tourism to sites dating from the Muslim Mughal era, including the Taj Mahal.
What is he running on this time?
With the economy not living up to Modi’s promises, the government is promoting nationalist pride and fear of Pakistan. India last month entered the elite club of countries equipped to wage war in space when it blew up one of its satellites with a ballistic missile. Modi has also benefited from a surge in patriotism after the recent skirmish with Pakistan over divided Kashmir. In February, a suicide bomber from the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed killed 40 Indian paramilitary troops, and Modi responded with stern rhetoric and airstrikes in Pakistani territory. He has taken to smearing the opposition as pro-Pakistan, saying, “In hating Modi, the opposition has begun to hate the nation.”
Who’s Modi running against?
The main opposition is the secular Congress Party, controlled by the Nehru-Gandhi family. Rahul Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma) is the great-grandson of Indian founding father Jawaharlal Nehru; his grandmother and father were also prime ministers. He is promising a basic income of about $1,000 a year, as well as programs to empower women. Polls show Modi leading, but Gandhi could still pull an upset. The BJP lost three major state elections in the Hindi heartland in December, a reflection of voter dissatisfaction with the economy. Still, while the two main parties dominate, about half of all Indian voters will likely cast ballots for regional parties specific to their state, many of them based on caste or ethnicity. With the stakes high, all sides have resorted to unprecedented propaganda efforts, including pushing fake stories on social media.
What kind of propaganda?
Facebook said it had taken down more than 1,100 accounts, nearly 700 of them linked to Congress, that were spreading disinformation—including one faked video of a BJP official purportedly conspiring to gin up a war to boost election chances. “The magnitude of the problem is really huge,” said analyst Kanchan Kaur. But the BJP isn’t innocent, either: HuffPost India found that the party had evaded Facebook and WhatsApp funding disclosure rules to secretly back sites that run doctored videos slandering Congress leaders. For the 290 million Indian adults who are illiterate, these videos, as well as Bollywood movies (see box) are a main source of information about candidates. Voting ends May 19, and the results will be announced May 23. In the meantime, said Apar Gupta of the Internet Freedom Foundation, “millions of voters are waking up to fake news, propaganda, and hate speech inciting violence against Muslims and other minorities every day.”
Bollywood movies that feature actors portraying real politicians are playing to packed crowds in the run-up to the election. In several of these films, Modi is depicted as India’s strong, patriotic champion. In the fawning biopic PM Narendra Modi, the actor who plays the leader warns Pakistan, “If you dare raise your hand against us again, we will chop it off.” Another pro-Modi film, Uri: The Surgical Strike, details Modi’s military response to a 2016 terrorist attack; it’s the highest-grossing film of the year. Gandhi, meanwhile, gets his own hagiographic treatment in My Name is RaGa, out this month, which plays up his family’s importance in modern Indian history. “Bollywood is not just a form of entertainment,” cultural studies professor Rajinder Dudrah told Time, “but also a parallel form of information.” ■