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What you need to know about India’s elections

Catch up on “rogue operatives,” campaign finance schemes, and concerns about India’s democracy.

- March 26, 2024
A supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP party wears BJP clothing in Lucknow, India, on March 3, 2024. Modi is running for a third term in India's 2024 elections, which will take place over six weeks, from April through June 2024
A man wearing the colors of India’s majority Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) in Lucknow, March 3, 2024 (cc) Chandleur, via Wikimedia Commons.

India is set to hold national elections, a 44-day process that will last from April 19 to June 1, 2024. In advance of that enormous exercise, and to some extent because of those imminent polls, the volume of Indian political news seems extraordinary. Incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to win, but several developments will keep Indian politics watchers busy despite that likely outcome. Here are the stories I am following. 

Yes, Indian elections start in April

India is constitutionally required to hold national elections no less than once every five years. That clock required elections by this summer, and so this month’s announcement that polls would indeed start up in April came as no surprise. India is the world’s most populous country, so its national elections are the globe’s largest whenever they are scheduled. 

The sheer scale of the exercise is unparalleled. The willingness of hundreds of millions of Indians to go to the polls will again offer a celebration of India’s democratic achievement since independence in 1947. India conducts its elections in phases rather than attempting to poll nearly a billion eligible voters simultaneously. The seven-phase election will begin on April 19, with results expected on June 4.

Modi’s coalition is expected to win – but by how much? 

Modi, India’s prime minister since 2014, remains incredibly popular. Cross-national surveys indicate he is perhaps the most popular head of government in the world. Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its coalition partners are forecast to keep their majority in India’s lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha. In the last national elections in 2019, the BJP-led alliance won 303 out of 545 seats in the Lok Sabha. 

Modi has set an ambitious target of 400 seats for the BJP alliance this time – which would represent the most decisive majority for any Indian government since the 1980s. This would require the BJP to maintain its traditional strength in northern India, expand its vote share in the northeast and eastern parts of the country, and break into areas such as Punjab and especially southern India that have traditionally been challenging for the BJP. 

How healthy is India’s democracy?

The polls will be a chance for observers in and out of India to assess a number of concerns about India’s democracy. Last week, prominent opposition politician Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party was arrested on corruption allegations. And the largest opposition party, the Indian National Congress, says a government tax investigation has frozen its bank accounts. 

Observers outside of India have also raised concerns. X, formerly Twitter, accused the Indian government of excessive moves to block users for actions the social media platform maintains are protected by the principle of freedom of expression. A Washington Post report details deepening government censorship efforts. Numerous long journalistic and opinion pieces describe the deteriorating health of Indian democracy and I expect more to come. 

For political scientists, there’s an added wrinkle. Upset about India’s deteriorating marks in international democracy ratings, (​​see ratings by V-Dem, Freedom House, Economist Intelligence Unit, and the Cato Institute, among others), there are reports that the Modi government has approached a New Delhi-based think tank to create its own cross-national democracy index. 

Modi made some final policy moves

Since the 1960s, the Election Commission of India has issued a model code of conduct for political parties to follow during the official campaign season. One element of the code is to avoid major government policy moves after the formal announcement on poll timings. 

Modi pushed two things out the metaphorical door before the poll announcement. The first was a March 11 test of a long-range missile reportedly capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads. While outside observers worried the test was a sign of an emerging destabilizing arms race in Asia, domestic commentary talked about India’s entrance into “the elite club of nations” capable of this technological accomplishment. 

The second move was to release administrative rules necessary to implement an earlier Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed by parliament in 2019. That legislation was controversial. Many saw it as overturning India’s secular tradition by offering a preferential pathway to Indian citizenship for certain non-Muslim migrants. The CAA prompted large protests and an international outcry. In fact, the controversy associated with the law is perhaps the dominant reason the Modi government had delayed announcing its implementation. Opposition parties have accused the government of timing the announcement to polarize voters along Hindu-Muslim lines. 

A peek into the murky world of Indian campaign financing

In 2017, the BJP government unveiled a program to permit any Indian citizen or entity to purchase special electoral bonds that could then be used to donate to political parties. The stated goal was to reduce the use of “dark” or “black money” in Indian politics by having the State Bank of India (SBI) track who was donating – and who was receiving donations. 

In theory these bonds were supposed to stay anonymous, but in practice the SBI could keep track of donations. One concern, in fact, was that the government of the day would have potential knowledge of donations to opposition parties and could then deter or punish those donors while soliciting donations itself. Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi recently said Modi had set up “the world’s largest extortion racket.” 

In February 2024, the Indian Supreme Court declared the scheme unconstitutional and said that donations since 2019 should be reported to the Election Commission of India. Now media companies and civil society groups are churning through new data released by the SBI on the bonds. Some findings were expected, such as the BJP being the largest party recipient of the bonds since their introduction. Others have been more surprising: While infrastructure and mining companies were big donors, the single biggest individual donor was Santiago Martin, whose firm “Future Gaming and Hotel Services” runs lucrative gambling lotteries in several Indian states

“Rogue operatives” abroad?

In non-election news, the Indian government appears to have acknowledged that some Indian officials may have been involved in an overseas targeted killing operation. In November 2023, a U.S. Department of Justice indictment described a criminal plot to assassinate a U.S. citizen within U.S. borders. As I wrote here at Good Authority, “The allegation is especially serious because the U.S. government says that the whole plot was orchestrated by an Indian government employee, suggesting that this episode could be part of an Indian-government sanctioned extraterritorial assassination program.” 

Bloomberg News has now reported that India’s investigation has found what Bloomberg described as the involvement of “rogue operatives not authorized by the [Indian] government.“ Subsequently, a local Indian newspaper appeared to confirm Bloomberg’s reporting. 

Since last year, the U.S. government has maintained its position that India must “fully investigate” the matter and called for “those responsible to be held properly accountable.” In February, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said that U.S. administration assurances that India was committed to the investigation had been necessary for him to approve the sale of long-range drones to India. Whether this story of “rogue operatives” proves credible – and sufficient to assuage U.S. concerns – will not be apparent for some time to come.