Nearly a billion people to vote as India kicks off colossal elections

By Pratap Chakravarty - RFI
India AP - Rajesh Kumar Singh
AP - Rajesh Kumar Singh

India on Friday launched the largest elections in human history, with ruling Hindu nationalists expected to win a third term in power with an even larger majority than in 2019.

India's opposition has been shoring up its tattered frontlines of late, with some leaders including two chief ministers in prison and dozens of MPs suspended from parliament ahead of the seven-phase polls starting this Friday in 21 of India's 28 states.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's untainted popularity has secured his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a head start in polls held ahead of the elections, which will involve some 970 million voters – including 26 million young adults who will be casting their ballots for the first time. 

The opposition Indian National Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi alleges a crackdown has been launched to ensure the elections are a one-sided affair for the BJP during the 44-days of polls, to be overseen by 15 million officials.

“All our bank accounts are frozen, we can do no campaign work, we cannot support our workers and this is being done two months before the election,” Gandhi said, joining a chorus of protest from several opposition groups facing police suppression.

In 2019, the BJP and its allies won 303 of the total 543 seats in parliament's lower house and Modi hopes for a 400-plus tally after the 44-day event with final results due to be announced by 4 June.

High security 

This Friday, 20,000 troopers will oversee voting in north-eastern state of Manipur where 220 people have died, scores of women have been raped and 5,000 homes burned down in year-long ethnic clashes.

Seventy-thousand soldiers will be also deployed in Kashmir for the state's first election to take place since Delhi revoked its semi-autonomous privileges, effectively splitting the state into two.

“The trends show the BJP will be back in power in India but with a fairly large reduction of seats in parliament,” Siddiq Wahid, a former Harvard University teacher, told RFI.

“Broken promises will be in focus.”
Wahid was alluding to Modi's previous election vows of creating 20 million jobs a year, doubling farm income and a one-time allowance of €17,000 for each of India's 1.4 billion people.

Wahid said voters in Kashmir were likely to approve either the main opposition Congress Party or a regional group, which have promised the speedy restoration of democratic institutions in the Muslim-majority state.

Credibility concerns

In 2023, the US-based Freedom House think-tank ranked India as “partly free” for the third year in a row while in 2018 Sweden's V-Dem downgraded it as an “electoral autocracy” branding New Delhi “one of the worst autocratisers” six years later.

The BJP has rejected the rankings as a plot to discredit the Modi-led government.

Meanwhile, Modi has implemented a divisive citizenship law that analysts say is likely to play a key role in unifying Hindu voters in favour of the BJP.

Political analyst Shivaji Sarkar told RFI a 41-party opposition alliance led by the Congress Party would try and discredit the BJP on its unfulfilled pledges.

“The BJP currently ahead of the opposition, but an [opposition] alliance is slowly coming together and could spring surprises,” says Sarkar, a former dean of the Mangalayatan University

Ethnic tenstions in Manipur state will hit the BJP's fortunes in 26 north-eastern constituencies, while the nationalists are unlikely to easily break into a fortress of 174 seats where local governments are part of the opposition alliance, he added.

'Democracy on the line'

Meanwhile, the husband of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has warned that India's “map will change” and democracy will "perish" if the BJP is returned to power.

"Of course, Modi's a dictator; he's dragging India back to the dark ages. His return to power would be a disaster for India," said Parakala Prabhakar, Sitharaman's husband.

Prabhakar, a scholar from London School of Economics, also attacked the BJP government for turning into law a scheme for political donations which was struck down in February by the courts.

“It is not only the biggest scam in India but is the biggest scam in the world,” Prabhakar added.

Modi insists the now-scrapped electoral bond scheme was actually designed to combat political corruption.