(LONDON) — Voters in India headed to the ballot box on Thursday as this year’s elections got underway, in what promises to be a pivotal political moment for a nation that has increasingly sought out more prominence on the world stage.
The eligible electorate is around 900 million people, according to most estimates — the largest of any democracy in the world. Thursday is the first day in a mammoth seven-stage democratic process for the nation of 1.3 billion people, which will conclude when results are announced on May 23.
Indian parliament consists of 545 seats, although two of those are reserved for the Anglo-Indian community and appointed by the prime minister.
In terms of sheer numbers, the Indian general election is a marvel.
Over 600 million people cast their vote at the 2014 general election, according to the Election Commission of India. In that election, 8,251 contenders campaigned for 543 parliamentary seats on behalf of 464 different political parties. Only six of those count as “national parties,” which have candidates in more than one state in the country.
Turnout at this year’s general election will likely be no different, as huge queues lined up on Thursday at the polling areas in the northern Indian states that vote in this round of the election.
In 2019, however, all eyes are on one man — the current prime minister and leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP party, Narendra Modi.
The future of India: secular or Hindu?
Modi’s BJP party was victorious in the 2014 elections, winning 282 seats compared to the opposition Indian National Congress Party’s (INC) 44.
BJP is not expected to perform so well this year.
“Just a couple of years ago, many commentators were certain that the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi would enjoy a second term in office. But slow job growth and farmer discontent have taken the shine off the administration,” Elizabeth Chaterjee, a political scientist at Queen Mary University of London, told ABC News. “In December, the BJP lost regional elections in three big states, and suddenly the 2019 race looked open again.”
However, the recent escalation of tensions with Pakistan – a Muslim majority country — may play into Modi’s hands, as he looks to appease his base.
“Coming only a month after a heated standoff with nuclear-armed rival Pakistan, the BJP hopes these patriotic appeals will mobilize its base of Hindu nationalist voters,” Chatterjee said.
Some have argued that politics under Modi has become targeted at the country’s Hindus rather than aiming for the secular vision that the INC championed. This year’s election is as much about who wins as it is about “the meaning of secularism” in India, according Dr. Gareth Price, senior research fellow in the Asia-Pacific program at Chatham House, an international affairs think tank in London.
“Pakistan has been seen as a kind of euphemism for Muslims in general,” he told ABC News. “Now there is even less focus on the economy and a revers[ion] to India’s strength and India’s involvement with Pakistan.”
Prime Minister Modi’s recent attempts to promote his own political image have caused controversy.
He has long-courted Bollywood, India’s movie industry, to talk more about patriotism and Indian culture. But now, he has a movie all to himself.
A big-budget biopic about Modi, “PM Narendra Modi: Story of a Billion People,” charts the politician’s rise from humble tea seller to one of the world’s most powerful leaders, and stars Bollywood actor Vivek Anad Oberoi as Modi, according to Reuters.
The film was scheduled to be released on Thursday, the first day of the general election, but the Indian Electoral Commission intervened, saying it posed a “serious threat” to the integrity of the election, and “may create an impression of truthfulness of content”, according to the BBC.
Courting the vote
Ultimately, however, some believe the performance of the BJP and INC in elections this year will depend on how many votes they secure from the country’s poorer voters.
“In the run-up to the election, India’s two main parties have been competing to promise poor voters increasingly generous benefits, from farmer payouts to basic income schemes,” Chatterjee said. “Most projections now predict that the BJP will remain the single largest party, but will fall short of a clear majority.” She added that such forecasts should be taken with a “pinch of salt.”
This year’s election might also have potentially more impact abroad, as India looks to secure its position as a major international player. But the reality could be more pragmatic.
“India’s priorities are domestic and they are going to remain so for quite some time,” Price said.
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