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(Sam Panthaki/AFP/Getty)

Roughly 1 in 8 people on Earth are eligible to vote in elections that start Thursday in India. With 900 million voters, the polls are a testament to India’s democracy and its commitment to universal franchise (All adults were eligible to vote starting with its first national election, unlike in many countries).

The polls are not only extensive, but consequential. In some ways, India is at a crossroads. Its economy is expanding, but not nearly fast enough to lift tens of millions of people into the middle class the way its neighbor China has. Meanwhile, India appears to have embraced a form of religious nationalism that could change the character of its democracy.

Narendra Modi, India’s polarizing and charismatic prime minister, intends to take India forward on both fronts. The leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, he swept to power in 2014, promising millions of jobs and an end to corruption scandals.

Modi’s victory marked the ascendancy of a form of nationalism “based not on secular principles but on the premise that Indian culture is conterminous with Hindu culture,” wrote Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in a recent article about the elections. The outcome of this campaign will “determine the contours of India’s future as a secular republic” committed to embracing diversity and religious pluralism.

Eighty percent of Indians are Hindu, but the country also is home to the world’s second-largest Muslim population, with pockets of Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and other religious minorities. India’s cultural and linguistic diversity make it more like the European Union than one of its member states, Ruchir Sharma wrote in the Guardian. That “in turn restricts the ability of one leader, even one as charismatic as Modi, to dominate the country.”

Yet Modi has come closer than any leader in recent times. Although India has a parliamentary system, Modi has managed to turn national elections into presidential-style contests. After taking office, critics say, he has demonstrated an authoritarian streak, sidelining his own cabinet and undermining the independence of institutions such as India’s equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Most observers simply refer to ‘Modi sarkar [government],’ underlining its personalization of power,” wrote Sanjay Ruparelia, a political scientist.

Modi took office before this recent wave of nationalistic populists started winning elections around the world, but he fits into the mold. Like President Trump, he has capitalized on majoritarian resentment. Also like Trump, Modi is a social media master who prefers to communicate directly with voters, including via his eponymous smartphone application. Modi has not held a single news conference while in office, and journalists considered to be critical of the government have faced increasing pressure. Reports of violence by extremist Hindu groups have spiked during his tenure.

Just a few months ago, it appeared the election campaign would be fought on terrain less favorable to Modi, with issues such as rising unemployment and distress among farmers at the forefront. Then came the Feb. 14 suicide bombing in Indian-controlled Kashmir, which killed 40 paramilitary officers. A Pakistan-based terrorist group asserted responsibility for the attack and India launched a retaliatory airstrike on what it said was a militant training camp inside Pakistan near the town of Balakot.

India has released no evidence to back its claims that it hit its target and killed scores of militants (Pakistan says India’s bombs dropped on an open hillside, and locals say no one was injured). Nevertheless, Modi has made the strikes a centerpiece of his campaign — proof not only of his hard-line stance on national security, but of the perfidy of anyone who questions the official line.

“The new India will kill terrorists in their homes,” Modi said at a recent rally in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state. Meanwhile, he said, his opponents ask for evidence of the strike’s impact, a sign they do not trust the armed forces or respect the sacrifices of soldiers. At another rally on Tuesday, he urged first-time voters to cast their ballots in honor of the Balakot airstrike.

Modi’s strategy is to “whip up a politics of anxiety, by presenting India as being under relentless attack and in moral peril from external and internal enemies,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political scientist and vice chancellor of Ashoka University, wrote in the Indian Express. “It creates a culture where elementary questions of fact and accountability are immobilized.”

Modi reserves most of his scorn for his main opponent: Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Indian National Congress whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather all served as prime minister. Modi calls him a “prince” and a “dynast” and has attacked him in frankly communal terms, accusing Gandhi of “running away” from areas where Hindus are the majority.

While Modi is doing his best to present his victory as inevitable, the outcome is uncertain. Compared with five years ago, the opposition is more unified, and Modi must contend with an anti-incumbency streak among Indian voters. Farmers have accumulated grievances, and their preferences remain an X-factor. Still, opinion polls suggest Modi will win reelection when the results of India’s multiphase general elections are announced May 23. With six weeks and almost a billion votes to go, anything is possible.

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