Indians head to the polls in world’s biggest election

Indians head to the polls in world’s biggest election
Indians head to the polls in world’s biggest election

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - NEW DELHI: Indian voters headed to the polls on Friday for the first phase of the world’s biggest general election, in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is aiming for a rare third consecutive term.

More than 968 million people are registered to vote, with polling taking place over the next six weeks, as results are expected on June 4.

After April 19, the other voting dates will be April 26, May 7, May 13, May 20, May 25 and June 1, with some states completing the process on a single day, and others having it spread out in several phases.

Friday’s polling was held in 21 states and union territories, including the most populous ones such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra, as well as smaller northeastern states and the northern Himalayan territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

In Kashmir, this is the first election since its special autonomous status and statehood were scrapped through the Indian government’s controversial constitutional amendment in 2019.

Chief Election Commissioner of India Rajiv Kumar told reporters on Friday that 168.6 million people were expected to cast their ballots on Friday.

“The preparations started, actually, two years back. Wide range of preparations … It’s a tremendous exercise,” he said.

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More than 2,600 political parties are registered in the marathon election and 543 contested seats in the lower house of Parliament. The party or coalition that wins at least 272 is going to form the government.

Modi is targeting 400 seats for the National Democratic Alliance led by his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been in power since 2014.

He is challenged by an alliance of two dozen opposition parties — the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, or INDIA, led by the Congress Party, which has ruled the country for close to 45 years since its independence in 1947.

The key leader of the opposition coalition is Rahul Gandhi — the son of Rajiv Gandhi, a grandson of Indira Gandhi, and a great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, all of whom served as prime ministers of India.

While the opposition is trying to appeal to Indian youth with promises to tackle unemployment, free education and medical facilities, the BJP has deployed the same tactics as in previous polls — by mobilizing voters through majoritarian Hindu sentiment, despite constitutional provisions that make it a secular state.

Opinion polls show Modi as frontrunner, with 48 percent of respondents in the most recent survey released by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies last week naming him as their choice for the prime minister. Gandhi was second, preferred by 27 percent.

“Modi has created an image of a powerful leader, a leader who is not only popular in India but outside too. He has also created an image of not pandering to Muslim communities in India … This image of a leader who does not appease the Muslim sentiments appeals to the Hindu masses. Politics of polarization helps Modi to build an image and aura among a large section of the Hindu voters,” Prof. Venkat Narayan, political analyst and commentator, told Arab News.

“Then the use of social media and the mainstream media is also there to create an image and broaden Modi’s appeal. The media plays a great role in creating this image, they are soft towards Modi and do not ask critical questions.”

If Modi wins the election, he will become the second prime minister, after Nehru, to succeed in three consecutive polls.

“Modi is leading in the polls as he has created an image of doing a lot for different sections of the society. Besides, he projects himself as squeaky clean. People also think that as he has no children, he has no reason to be corrupt or be on the take,” Sanjay Kapoor, analyst and editor of the English-language political magazine Hardnews, told Arab News.

“There are other reasons for his popularity, which include adroit use of media and social media that control all criticism against him. Then there are issues of raising India’s global profile and pursuing an independent foreign policy.”

FUTURE FOREIGN POLICY

Whoever wins the election, the foreign policy direction is likely to remain broadly unchanged, except for India’s orientation toward Israel and Palestine.

Support for Palestine and Palestinian statehood was once an integral part of India’s foreign policy, but in recent years, under Modi’s rule, New Delhi has become closer to Tel Aviv, despite civil society protests breaking out across the country against Israel’s deadly war on Gaza.

“If the INDIA alliance comes to power, then we may see a change in our policy towards Israel and Palestine. The INDIA alliance is sympathetic to Palestinians,” Kapoor said.

“We expect that the INDIA alliance will also restore ties with neighbors like Pakistan, (and) revive SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation).”

The member states of SAARC — a regional intergovernmental organization and geopolitical union of states in South Asia — are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

The last biennial SAARC summit was hosted by Nepal in 2014. Pakistan was to host the summit in 2016, but it was stalled after India refused to participate, following an attack on an Indian army camp in Kashmir that New Delhi blamed on Pakistan-based militants.

VOTERS’ CONCERNS

According to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies survey, unemployment emerged as the top concern for 27 percent of respondents.

Some 62 percent also said it has been more difficult to find a job in the last five years — during Modi’s second term in office.

“The biggest concern remains inflation and unemployment. The possibility of getting a job decreases if you study more. People are forced to leave India in search of jobs. Some have even gone as far as Russia and Israel,” Kapoor said. “The situation is really dismal.”

Rising prices and inflation were also a major issue — the top concern for 23 percent of the people surveyed by the CSDS.

“Women and the middle class are concerned about the rising prices. Modi is trying to divert attention from these main issues by talking about religion and temples,” said Shashi Shekhar Singh, associate professor at Satyawati College at the University of Delhi.

The CSDS pre-poll also revealed that despite the ruling party’s narrative promoting Hindu nationalist dominance to establish a majoritarian state in India, only 11 percent of respondents saw India as solely for Hindus.

But there were fears the reality on the ground could change if the BJP tried to amend India’s liberal and democratic constitution.

“Indian secularism and the very idea of a plural democracy is at stake,” Singh said.

“There is a fear that if the BJP comes to power with the thumping majority, the liberal and secular democracy will breathe its last. The BJP might lead the nation further down the path of a Hindu majoritarian state.”

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