Just how big was this exercise?
Very, very big. Held every five years, Indian elections are the largest democratic exercise in the world. With about 900 million eligible voters, the size of the electorate had swelled by more than 80 million compared to 2014. In that election, 550 million people ultimately cast votes.
While over 450 political parties contested the last election, only six were national parties that could claim a base of supporters across different states. This time, the voting process unfolded at more than a million polling stations, each one overseen by several election officials.
The result of this election will be pivotal to the future of India, soon to become the world’s most populous nation. India is attempting to catch up in economic terms with China, its neighbor to the east, a pursuit that requires massive investment in infrastructure and significant policy change. At the same time, the country is also deciding what kind of democracy it wants to be, having embraced a Hindu chauvinist leader by a landslide in the last national polls in 2014.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power promising “achhe din” — good times — and development for all. While economic output grew rapidly during his tenure, employment has not kept pace, leading to increasing numbers of jobless youth. Meanwhile, India faces a growing battle with air pollution and water shortages.
Modi’s ascent also empowered right-wing Hindu groups. Since 2014, dozens of people have been lynched in the name of “cow protection.” Modi eventually condemned such killings.
Exit polls suggest that Modi is poised to win a second term. Most such polls indicated that the BJP and its allies would clear the 272-seat majority threshold in parliament (one important caveat: exit polls have not always been correct in the past).
A native of the state of Gujarat, Modi spent much of his life within the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a group that seeks to make India a “Hindu nation.” In 2002, when he was chief minister of Gujarat, riots broke out that left more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead. Modi pioneered what became known as the “Gujarat model,” modernizing the state’s infrastructure and making it a favorite destination for investment.
Modi’s principal opponent was Rahul Gandhi, who heads the Indian National Congress. He is the latest member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to seek to lead the country. (The family is not related to independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.) Rahul Gandhi’s great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was India’s first prime minister. Both his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, and his father, Rajiv Gandhi, also led the country and were later assassinated. Rahul Gandhi faced an uphill battle to persuade voters to give the dynasty another try, especially after corruption scandals plagued the last Congress government.
What are the main issues?
Until recently, it appeared that employment and rural distress would be some of the main themes of the election. In January, a leaked official report showed that India’s unemployment rate had increased under the Modi government to a 45-year high. Farmers, meanwhile, have held several large marches in recent months to protest the difficult conditions they face, including rising input costs and high amounts of debt. Those issues probably contributed to defeats for the BJP in three key state elections late last year.
But that all changed on Feb. 14, when a suicide bombing in Indian-controlled Kashmir killed 40 paramilitary officers. In response, Modi launched an airstrike on an alleged militant training camp in Pakistan, setting off the most serious military confrontation between the two countries in decades. Ever since, Modi has sought to make national security the primary issue of the campaign, engaging in increasingly strident rhetoric that presents his opponents as undermining the country’s safety.
What was the campaign like?
Nasty. There was no shortage of insults and low blows in what turned into a bruising contest, even by recent Indian standards.
Modi himself was criticized for speaking ill of the dead: At one point he took aim at Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul’s father, saying that he had an image for honesty but came to epitomize corruption by the time he was killed.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric also featured prominently in the BJP’s campaign. Amit Shah, the party’s president, called Muslim migrants who enter the country illegally “termites.” Yogi Adityanath, the radical Hindu priest who leads country’s largest state, said opposition parties were infected with a “green virus” (green is a color traditionally associated with Islam).
The lowest point of the campaign came when Pragya Singh Thakur, a BJP candidate on trial for terrorism charges, said that the man who murdered the revered independence leader Mohandas Gandhi was “a patriot.”
Opposition parties did not fall short when it came to mudslinging. Mamata Bannerjee, the chief minister of the state of West Bengal and a die-hard Modi foe, called the prime minister and the BJP president “top goons.” Azam Khan, a regional leader in North India, was briefly suspended from campaigning after stating that his rival, a female candidate from the BJP, wore “khaki underwear." Khaki is a color associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the right-wing Hindu nationalist group.
India’s 2019 election are slated to be the most expensive the world has ever seen. In the last national elections in 2014, parties spent over $5 billion, according to Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That figure will be surpassed this year. By comparison, in the 2016 presidential and congressional elections in the United States, the price tag was $6.5 billion.
In theory, there is a cap — nearly $1 million — on how much parliamentary candidates can spend on their campaign. In practice, large amounts of undeclared funds flow into candidates’ coffers.
The current government introduced two important — and controversial — changes to how campaigns are funded. Parties can now receive funds from Indians living abroad and from some foreign firms that have Indian holding companies. They can also raise money from anonymous individual or corporate donors through the use of “electoral bonds.”
What is a “mahagathbandhan”?
A “mahagathbandhan” is a Hindi word meaning “mega-coalition” or “grand alliance.” Leaders of a variety of India’s opposition parties — among them the Congress party, the Trinamool Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party and the Samajwadi Party — have held talks after the voting concluded, raising the prospect that if they gain enough seats, they could join forces to unseat Modi and the BJP.