As Indian voters go to the polls in the first phase of the country’s national parliamentary elections, they may be helping decide whether the world’s largest democracy will continue to deserve that label.
The 2019 Indian election—set to be one of the world’s most expensive—will take place in seven phases up until May 19. In these phases, each conducted in different regions of the country, voters will elect their representatives to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s Parliament. The states of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh will also hold elections for their state-level legislative assemblies. Following the last phase, votes will be counted, and the newly elected or reelected members of the Lok Sabha will then choose the next prime minister of India. The contest will almost certainly come down to current Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress Party. Out of India’s 1.3 billion people, 900 million are expected to turn out to choose their leaders.
The 2014 election, in which Modi and the BJP claimed a sweeping victory, was a breakaway from the firm hold of the liberal, historically dominant Congress Party, which last governed India from 2004–14 under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It was seen as Modi’s Reagan revolution, a conservative realignment of India’s values for the foreseeable future, following a Congress reign that had seen several large-scale corruption scandals. This year’s election will decide whether this political shift lasts: If he wins again, he will not only be the second non-Congress prime minister since Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998–2004 to serve a full term; he will be the first PM outside of the Congress Party to be elected to a second term.
The vote will be viewed as a referendum on the most right-wing administration to govern India since independence. Under Modi’s watch, it’s been a banner half-decade for India’s fundamentalist Hindus, who have assumed their most mainstream and extreme political form after decades on the fringes. People in the upper reaches of government regularly tout Hindu nationalist talking points. Free markets, privatization of state-owned services, and minimal government intervention are the key to prosperity. Climate change is considered a problem that doesn’t really require a lot of investment. Citizens who protest the government or even touch cows are thought of as unpatriotic and worthy of getting beaten up. Hate crimes against Muslims and lower-caste groups have escalated dramatically, with the government often turning the other way. School textbooks have rewritten India’s history to make it more Hindu-centric, and major universities have been infiltrated by nationalists.
But while it’s been a good few years for Modi’s core base, it’s not as though everything he’s done has been to their satisfaction. As James Crabtree chronicled in his book, The Billionaire Raj, inequality has widened massively in the decades since India turned toward a capitalist system—today, the top 1 percent of Indians now hold almost three-quarters of the country’s wealth. Despite Modi’s promises for a reinvigorated economy—intended to be achieved through an insular “Make in India” manufacturing initiative and expanded trade relationships with various countries—his citizens are suffering from high unemployment, decreasing wages, and suddenly sluggish economic growth. And his most publicized economic policy, demonetization—stripping India’s two highest bank notes of their values to crack down on criminals—was an oppressive failure. The measure only ended up hitting the poorest Indians the hardest, led to major job losses, and did pretty much nothing to stem illicit cash flow. In addition, India’s outgoing Chief Election Commissioner O.P. Rawat not only claimed the policy had no effect on curbing the use of dark money in the election but that, in fact, there seems to be more of it this year than ever before.
Last year was the first evidence that these travails would reflect poorly on Modi: There was a slump in Modi’s normally high polling numbers, and in local elections, the Congress Party won back legislative assembly control in three states that had been controlled by the BJP.
However, recent events in Kashmir and Pakistan made up for that drop. On Feb. 14, members of the Pakistani militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed carried out a suicide bombing in the India-controlled part of Kashmir that killed more than 40 Indian soldiers on patrol. In retaliation, India launched airstrikes aimed at what was purported to be a Pakistani military base, and the two countries claimed to have shot down each other’s fighter jets, with Pakistan taking an Indian pilot hostage. It was the most aggressive show of force between the two nuclear-armed rivals in decades, and the renewed national fervor caused by the tension was good for Modi’s polls.
This election has also seen growing concern over where Indian voters are getting their information. As the BJP’s social media chief claims, 2019 is “the year of India’s first ‘WhatsApp elections,’ ” and political parties are doubling down on campaigning through the app. However, both WhatsApp and Facebook, which have their largest user bases in the country, have been catnip for the spread of misinformation, often spreading vitriolic, bigoted screeds that have led to brutal violence against Muslims and other non-Hindu groups. Much of this can be tracked back to the major political parties themselves—in 2016, a tell-all by a former BJP social media volunteer titled I Am a Troll claimed the party’s digital strategy explicitly encouraged the criticism of prominent liberals and Muslims and women.
To try to stem disinformation spread ahead of the polls, India’s Election Commission has asked social media companies to follow its code of conduct, normally applied to candidates, which is supposed to prevent nasty insults and impose rules on incumbency-advantageous actions during campaigns. In agreeing, Facebook, WhatsApp, and even Google “promis[ed] to take down any deliberately misleading information within three hours.” Facebook recently removed hundreds of pages and accounts originating in both India and Pakistan that promulgated false news. While nearly 700 pages were linked to the Congress Party, there were more than 100 with links to Pakistan’s military. One anti-Congress page with 2.6 million followers was linked to Silver Touch Technologies, the firm that reportedly created Modi’s personal app, NaMo—which has also been accused of spreading misinformation.
So what does all of this mean for the next couple months? The general prediction is that Modi will remain prime minister but won’t have the full luxury of party control. A Times Now–VMR opinion poll predicts that out of Lok Sabha’ 545 seats, 279 seats will go to the National Democratic Alliance (the BJP’s coalition of relatively ideologically aligned parties) and 149 to the United Progressive Alliance (the Congress Party’s coalition). While Congress is expected to make a surge in this election, it likely won’t be anywhere near enough to be an effective counter to the Modi administration.
Nevertheless, the party looks as though it will be in much, much better straits than even five years ago, though that’s more likely due to a BJP backlash than a sudden reembrace of Congress’ values—namely, anti-discrimination policy, press freedom, well-funded social welfare, and heavy investment in both state and private enterprise. But even if Congress regains significant power, it’s unclear whether it can return to its former levels of preeminence without heavy overhaul to its power structure. The BJP has worked for decades to get here, and no matter how the election goes, it’s not likely to lose its newfound mainstream relevance anytime soon. The party promises to make India Hindu again, using its own narrow definition, and there’s nothing its most devoted followers won’t do to make that happen.