India’s national elections kicked off on April 11 – 900 million voters in the largest election in history are eligible to vote in polls that span the next six weeks.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leader of the right-wing, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the current coalition government, appears the likely winner, according to the polls, though several outcomes remain possible. BJP will have to duplicate its highly efficient geographic concentration of votes in northern India, or succeed in their eastward push.
Indian National Congress (Congress), BJP’s primary opposition, is led by Rahul Gandhi. His family has controlled India’s party of independence for four generations. Congress hopes to replicate recent provincial victories in the BJP’s northern stronghold. Ultimately, smaller regional parties may prove pivotal, especially in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and electorally significant province.
Voters will select their local member of parliament. The country’s prime minister will be selected from the party or coalition that can muster a majority in India’s 543-seat parliament.
Any Indian election contains a dizzying array of plots. Here’s what to watch over the coming weeks:
1. Will Modi’s popularity (and last-minute spending) trump his spotty economic performance?
Indians report economic issues such as jobs and agricultural prices for farmers, are crucial to their vote choice. If so, the incumbent government has reason to worry.
Modi’s 2014 campaign pledged to boost job creation. Yet despite solid growth rates for the economy, a government research agency found unemployment last year to be at a 45-year high. An embarrassed Modi government blocked the report’s public release. In the countryside, India’s farmers face a double whammy of rising costs and declining commodity prices, which pushed them to protest in large numbers.
Opinion polls corroborate popular discontent with key aspects of the government’s economic performance.
Yet Modi remains personally popular. His lead in head-to-head ratings against Gandhi, which narrowed slightly last year, is back to where it was following his 2014 victory. While India’s election is not a presidential contest, Modi’s personalized popularity has appeared to buoy his party in the past.
The BJP also hopes to blunt discontent with election-time splurges – though the party previously disparaged its rivals for indulging in these moves. The extra spending may help, but to what extent remains unclear.
2. Will the recent terror attack help the ruling party?
National security and foreign policy take a firm backseat to local domestic issues in most Indian elections. But this time, some observers believe the Modi government will benefit from the aftermath of a February attack by a Pakistan-based militant group in Indian-administered Kashmir.
The incident intensified hostilities between India and Pakistan, and India retaliated with an airstrike on an alleged Pakistani terror training center. Experts are unsure if the strike even hit its intended target, a claim that is hotly debated by the rival governments.
Yet irrespective of its efficacy, the strike may help the BJP. Voters may view it as evidence of Modi’s decisive handling of a major rival. The feverish nationalist rhetoric after the Kashmir attack may also galvanize the BJP’s workers responsible for crucial door-to-door mobilization. And the strike seduced opposition leaders into debating Modi on national security, diverting attention away from his economic failures.
3. What impact will social media have?
Social media platforms, especially WhatsApp, are increasingly central to Indian elections. Major parties now use these rapidly growing platforms to communicate with their party workers.
India’s parties have also established thousands of highly localized WhatsApp groups to collect detailed demographic information on voters. As in the United States, parties can use this micro-level data to tailor their canvassing strategies.
These platforms also can spread misinformation linked to violence, mirroring patterns elsewhere, from Brazil to Myanmar. Indian politicians, especially from the Hindu right, have used the power of rumors to polarize communities along religious lines before elections. Social media technology provides opportunities to enact such strategies at unprecedented speed and scale.
Yet we lack concrete evidence that these efforts actually impact voting. Recent surveys find most Indians distrust news shared via social media. But recent elections are also a game of inches, and many Indian voters decide whom to vote for at the last minute. In this context, even small shifts produced by social media may have large consequences.
4. What does the future hold for India’s 172 million Muslims?
Critics worried the BJP’s 2014 victory would empower the most violent majoritarian strains of Hindu nationalism. They pointed to Modi’s failure to prevent a 2002 pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat, the state he headed at the time.
Large-scale violence has not marred Modi’s tenure as prime minister – but the marginalization of India’s Muslims has unfolded in other ways. Muslims comprise just 4 percent of elected parliamentarians, the lowest share in the country’s history. The BJP has no Muslim parliamentarians, and its senior leadership has normalized anti-Muslim rhetoric. Modi’s closest aide repeatedly makes campaign speeches laced with anti-Muslim rhetoric – as does a Hindu priest Modi selected to head the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh.
Modi’s victory also appears to have emboldened Hindu vigilante groups. There are reports of an uptick in cultural policing by these groups since 2014, which frequently end in the gruesome lynching of Muslims.
5. And what about India’s female voters?
The past few Indian elections have produced a remarkable rise in female voter turnout – women now vote at nearly the same rate as men. Research reveals Indian women do not hold identical priorities as men. Nor do they simply vote as the men in their household instruct. Some survey data suggest women vote for the BJP less frequently than men by a small but persistent margin. Other surveys find women view Modi less favorably, compared to men, in his handling of issues ranging from corruption to Hindu-Muslim relations.
Noting these trends, Indian parties have catered their campaigns to explicitly court the female vote. These efforts include boosting the number of female candidates, and emphasizing policies many women favor, such as cooking gas subsidies and alcohol bans.
Tariq Thachil is an associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. His book, Elite Parties, Poor Voters (Cambridge University Press, 2014), examines the rise of the BJP among poor voters in India.