Everything you need to know about India’s parliamentary election

A choice to make.
A choice to make.
Image: REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis
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Starting this week, almost 900 million people will be eligible to vote in the world’s largest democratic contest ever—a record that’s set and broken with each consecutive Indian election. After five years of rule by an alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the key question at play here is whether Narendra Modi will be able to keep his job as prime minister for another five-year term.

The BJP rose to power in a landslide electoral victory in 2014, from which it became the first party in thirty years to win a majority of seats in India’s parliament. Its campaign, run with Modi at its centre, was buoyed by towering public resentment towards the incumbent Indian National Congress-led government, which had been rocked by several corruption scandals.

In 2014, Modi built much of his campaign on the promise of boosting economic development, supporting business in India, and bringing about acche din, or “good days.” Indians today are divided over whether he managed to bring those good days at all, with many claiming that many of his pro-development promises have failed to materialise.

Throughout his career, Modi has espoused strident Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva—an ideology that claims India is meant to be a nation for Hindus, not unlike the vision of religious nationalism present in regimes like Israel or Pakistan. Since he was elected in 2014, religious polarisation has deepened significantly under Modi’s rule, with Hindutva becoming more mainstream and institutionalised, and incidents of hate crimes against religious minorities spiking.

Other key issues affecting India and its current election include an unemployment crisis, threats to the integrity of national institutions, widespread distress among farmers, and economic difficulties in the wake of the bold—some say misguided—policy of demonetisation. India’s recent conflict with Pakistan, following a deadly terror attack by Pakistani militants in Kashmir, has also had a major influence on the election.

This election will last six weeks, spread over multiple phases starting on April 11. As the world watches India, here’s what you should be keeping in mind about the key players and issues:

Where does the current government stand?

By the poll numbers, Modi is extremely popular. An April 7 survey finds that 43% of respondents want him to return as prime minister—seven percentage points higher than during the blowout 2014 election.

He’s also backed by an extremely wealthy and powerful party. Last year the BJP reported almost $150 million in income. This was the highest reported out of all parties by far, with the second richest party, the Congress, reporting only a little more than one fifth of that.

The BJP dominates in political funding as well, and has used its time in power to reshape the regulations surrounding it. Launched by the government in 2017, the electoral bond scheme, which enables anonymous political contributions at the publicly owned State Bank of India, has been utilized mainly by the BJP. As of Nov. 2018, the party had secured 95% of electoral bond funding that had been disbursed.

Social media and digital platforms are a key political battleground in mobile data-hungry India, in which young people comprise a key demographic of around 45 million new voters. When it comes to this, the BJP is far more sophisticated and deeply resourced than other parties. Instant messaging platform WhatsApp is particularly critical for its digital operations; reports indicate that the BJP plans to have three political WhatsApp groups for each of the country’s 927,533 polling booths. “There will be point people (in the BJP campaign) who will be given the responsibility of bringing people to booths and posting on WhatsApp groups,” journalist and media researcher Pamela Philipose told Quartz in an earlier interview.

Modi remains the key face throughout the BJP’s campaigning, by a long shot. Other campaign fixtures, however, include Amit Shah, the party’s president and the prime minister’s right-hand man, and Yogi Adityanath, the Hindu nationalist chief minister of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh.

The BJP has also forged alliances with smaller parties, despite having a majority on its own; it is joined by almost 40 others in a coalition called the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which consolidates power in 341 out of 545 seats in parliament.

The opposition?

The Congress party’s crushing defeat in 2014 was far more than a loss for the incumbent government: it was a historic low for the party that, for decades, occupied the dominant position in Indian politics. Congress, which has in aggregate ruled India for 49 of its 72 independent years, won just just 44 seats in 2014 compared to the BJP’s 282.

If Congress wins enough seats to form the government, President Rahul Gandhi, the male scion of the Gandhi family—descendants of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose members have led the party for most of its history—is likely to be its prime ministerial face. But Congress recently welcomed a new star to its campaigning roster: Rahul’s sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who recently entered politics and has been drawing intense media attention.

Some believe that, in the current climate, the Congress does not present a robust enough challenge for the savvy BJP. One example of this is in its seeming reluctance to forge alliances with smaller parties. The BJP has “played a much more pragmatic alliance game than Congress has,” Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told Quartz, explaining that the ruling party seems to have sometimes even ceded more ground to smaller allies than they needed to, “because they’ve just been focused on closing a deal.”

The Congress, on the other hand, Dhume added, “seems to—bizarrely in my view—act as if they have all the time in the world, and it doesn’t matter if they lose in 2019, there’s always 2024.” Many others have made similar observations about the Congress as well; that the historic party may be playing a longer game, building up strength for the election after this one, when anti-incumbency may be stronger.

The economy: angry farmers and fudged numbers

When opposing parties have most effectively effectively criticized the BJP, it has generally been on the issue of the economy. 

In November 2016, Modi brought about the extremely controversial step of demonetising all 500 and 1,000-rupee notes in an attempt to clear the economy of “black money,” or untaxed wealth. The move brought chaos to many parts of India’s highly informal, cash-dependent economy, and the political demons continue to haunt the BJP over two years later. The Congress has already announced that if elected, it will probe the matter to determine the “profit and loss to the country.”

Many farmers are also dissatisfied with Modi, and have been holding massive protests against the government since 2016. The farmers’ demands pertain to a lack of state support for their businesses, especially in the pricing of crops. The BJP has attempted to get ahead of this controversy by launching a minimum-income scheme for small farmers in its 2019 budget.

One of the most controversial issues of this election is unemployment—in particular because the numbers themselves are hotly contested. In February, the newspaper Business Standard claimed officials had suppressed an official survey, which stated that the unemployment crisis was the worst it had been in 45 years.

The Indian government has been accused of obscuring or manipulating economic data—including in the calculation of the GDP—for its own political appearances. More than 108 Indian and foreign economists signed a petition last month alleging “political interference” in statistical data.

The “Balakot bump?” The Indo-Pak conflict

If there is one major issue raised during this election that was hardly in play five years ago, it’s national security. In mid February, a deadly terror attack by Pakistani militant group the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) killed 40 Indian security personnel in Pulwama, Kashmir. Less than two weeks later, Indian fighter jets carried out a “pre-emptive” strike against a JeM camp near the small Pakistani town of Balakot.

The next day, India and Pakistan clashed when Pakistan shot down an Indian Mig-21 Bison, taking a wing commander, Abhinandan Varthaman, captive. Pakistan released him in 60 hours as a “gesture of peace,” prompting global accolades.

The international and domestic versions of events, however, have diverged dramatically. While Indian officials claimed hundreds of militants were killed in the Balakot airstrike, international reports and satellite analyses indicated the damage was much less. And while India claimed that it had also shot down a Pakistani plane, a US count of Pakistan’s F-16’s have found none to be missing.   

For much of India, the BJP government’s version of events is the canonical one—not least because those who question it are often excoriated as “anti-national.” The government has “exaggerated the impact of what they did, and they’ve created a situation in India where anyone who questions the facts is immediately attacked as treasonous or traitorous,” Dhume said.

Many have reported that, with the surge of nationalism after the Pulwama attack and the border conflict, the BJP is experiencing a “Balakot bump”—an advantage in the polls, as voters favour decisive, strict leadership when it pertains to relations with Pakistan.

Nationalism, Hindutva and anti-minority violence

The BJP’s grassroots political operations, which are formidable on their own, must also be understood in the context of the party’s cultural parent group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS, a stridently Hindutva organization, runs significant community programs, schools, and gatherings, including in around 60,000 self-funded locations called shakhas. These, as well as schools run by the RSS, have been influential in spreading the organization’s ideological message throughout India, including in places where Hindutva has had less of a foothold, like the Northeastern states.

Modi is an RSS man, through and through. He entered politics through the group, joining it as a volunteer when he was an eight-year-old. It tasked him to work for the BJP when he was in his mid-30s, after which he rose in the ranks to become the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat—the political post he held before becoming prime minister.

The RSS is controversial for its deep prejudice against religious minorities and alleged complicity in violence against them. The organization has been banned by the government three times in modern Indian history, including after one of its members assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.

But under Modi, ties between the government and the RSS are much tighter. The group is also sending its own cadre to mobilize on behalf of the BJP. RSS men pack the government as well: The Economist reports that 12 of 25 of Modi’s cabinet ministers have links to the organization, as do 11 of the 49 other union ministers, and 15 of 33 state governors.

The RSS’s now-mainstream position in public life and policy is one indication of Hindutva’s greatly increased influence. Aside from that, majoritarian violence is on the rise. Incidents of gau raksha—“cow-protection”—violence, which are religious hate crimes usually against Muslims or those perceived likely to slaughter cows, have risen 28% between 2014 and 2017. These often happen as mob lynchings, and have targeted families and young teens as well.

Campaigning ahead of this election, especially after the conflict with Pakistan, has raised many issues of religious tension. Uttar Pradesh’s Adityanath, for instance—who has come under much fire before for his blatantly anti-Muslim statements—has drawn criticism from a Muslim group in recent days for calling the religion a “virus.”

Some things, however, have remained quite the same over the years. For instance, the BJP’s election manifesto, released yesterday, contains a call for a Ram temple to be built in the spot where a mosque once stood in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, before it was destroyed by political fanatics. The call for the Ram temple has been a consistent demand from the BJP and other Hindu nationalists in India, appearing on every single BJP manifesto since 1996.

Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.