With Modi as frontrunner, India’s mammoth election gets underway


From remote states tucked in the Himalayan mountains in the north to the deep south, millions of Indians lined up at polling booths Friday at the start of a phased election in which the country’s populist prime minister, Narendra Modi, is widely seen as the frontrunner.

The election pits Modi’s BJP or Bharatiya Janata Party against the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, a coalition of more than two dozen opposition parties, which also goes by its acronym INDIA. The opposition hopes to loosen Modi’s decade-long grip on power with promises to address issues such as joblessness and economic distress among the poor.

On Friday, voters chose representatives for 102 seats in the lower house of parliament, the first stage in a mammoth election that is being held in seven phases over six weeks to choose 543 lawmakers.

The scale of the election is staggering – about 970 million eligible voters, 1 million polling stations and 15 million polling staff and security personnel will be involved in conducting what is called the world’s largest peacetime exercise. The results will be counted on June 4 after polling is completed across the vast country.

Seventy-three-year-old Modi, who has set an ambitious goal of securing an even more decisive victory than in the previous two elections, is likely to ride back to a rare third term in office largely on the strength of his personal popularity.

“This election is all about Narendra Modi. He is more popular than his party and his popularity overrides any issue that may confront voters,” said political analyst Rasheed Kidwai.

Thirty-six-year-old Jitender Singh Chandel in Uttar Pradesh’s Noida city, who was employed as a driver, says he is struggling to find work. “There are no jobs. I have not got a break so far. I have heard that the government has given money to the poor to build houses in villages, but I have not benefited,” he told VOA. But when he votes next week, he will choose the BJP because he feels safety and security has improved under Modi’s rule.

In a post on the social media site X, Modi called on voters to exercise their franchise in record numbers. “I particularly call upon the young and first-time voters to vote in large numbers. After all, every vote counts and every voice matters!” he said.

On the campaign trail, Modi has been wooing an aspirational country with promises of giving further momentum to India’s economy, which is now the world’s fastest growing. It has cemented his support among the middle classes.

In a country with wide economic disparities, he is also promising to boost social welfare measures handed out in the last 10 years to poor families such as housing, toilets, free food grains and financial assistance for women.

“What Modi has done so far is just the appetizer,” he said at one election rally, referring to himself in the third person. “The main course is yet to come.”

A fruit seller, Naresh Gupta in Noida, a town in Uttar Pradesh, says he will cast his vote for the BJP. “He has done good work,” he says succinctly.

The Hindu nationalism that Modi has espoused has also struck a strong chord in the Hindu majority country – a temple built for Hindu god Rama which he inaugurated in January won accolades from millions. But critics and the opposition say the BJP’s Hindu nationalist ideology is divisive and erodes India’s secular ethos.

In a post on X, the leader of the main opposition Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, said the election will decide the future of Indian democracy.

“Strengthen democracy by applying the balm of your vote to the wounds inflicted on the soul of the nation in the last 10 years,” he said and called on voters to “defeat hatred.”

Political analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay calls the polls a referendum on Modi.

“For voters, it is either an acceptance of his narrative or a rejection of all that has been done in the last 10 years. There are many shortcomings in what has been delivered such as livelihood concerns,” he said.

The main opposition Congress Party hopes to tap into disgruntlement over unemployment and inflation, which it says are the biggest challenges confronting the country.

In a recent survey conducted by the think tank Lokniti and CSDS, two-thirds of the respondents said that finding jobs had become harder in the last five years. However, the survey also showed that those concerns did not necessarily influence their vote.

The Congress party, whose political presence has shrunk dramatically since Modi’s rise, hopes its alliance with other opposition parties will help counter the BJP more effectively.

But analysts say the opposition remains fragmented and its failure to put up a prime ministerial candidate is a disadvantage. “The question people often ask is Modi versus who?” pointed out analyst Kidwai.

Opposition parties also accuse the ruling BJP of skewing the electoral battleground through corruption probes by federal agencies against several of their leaders – two chief ministers were arrested in recent months in connection with graft allegations and the Congress Party’ said its accounts were frozen by the tax department. The government denies the charges of politically motivated investigations.

One of the most keenly watched contests in Friday’s round of voting is in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, which is ruled by a powerful regional party, but where the BJP is trying to gain a foothold. The Hindu nationalist party draws its support mainly from populous northern and western states but wants to acquire a pan-India presence.

Friday’s vote highlighted the logistical challenge of organizing polls in remote areas of India to ensure the Election Commission’s commitment to reach every voter. In the northeastern Meghalaya state, a team trekked 12 kilometers up a mountain to set up a polling booth in a small village for about 140 voters.

In Manipur state where many people were displaced following ethnic strife last year, polling booths were set up in relief camps. In the central Chhattisgarh state, polling staff and voting machines were ferried in helicopters to reach voters in forests that are a stronghold of Maoist rebels.__VOA News