Six weeks, 969 million voters, 2,600 parties: India’s mammoth election explained

<span>India’s prime minister Narendra Modi prepares for the start of the election</span><span>Photograph: Mahesh Kumar A/AP</span>
India’s prime minister Narendra Modi prepares for the start of the electionPhotograph: Mahesh Kumar A/AP

What is happening?

India, home to more than 1.4 billion people, will begin its mammoth election on 19 April. The country prides itself on the scale of its parliamentary elections, ensuring that even those in the remotest corners and highest peaks of the vast country are able to cast their vote. Voting machines in such less accessible parts are carried on the backs of horses and elephants and for some, polling booths can be reached only by boat. India also boasts the world’s highest polling booth, 15,256ft (4,650 metres) up in the Himalayan mountains.

Due to its colossal geography, voting is not on a single day but is instead split into seven phases across the different states, lasting nearly six weeks in toal. It will take place using electronic machines in more than a million polling booths, and the Election Commission of India will deploy 15 million people to oversee the operation. Voting will close on 1 June and results will finally be counted and declared on 4 June.

India’s elections are also some of the most expensive in the world. This year, the cost is expected to hit 1.2tn rupees (£12bn), which is almost double what was spent in the 2019 elections.

Why does it matter?

This time round India will have 969 million eligible voters – more than 10% of the world’s population. They represent the largest electorate anywhere and will include 18 million first-time voters.

Related: ‘I was told I’d be killed if I didn’t leave’: Himalayan state is a testing ground for Modi’s nationalism

More than 2,600 political parties are registered in this election. According to most analysts and political polling, the frontrunner is India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, and his Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) which has been in power since 2014 and is seeking a third term.

The Hindu nationalist policies of Modi and the BJP government are widely seen to have reshaped the political and cultural landscape of the country over the past decade, shifting it away from the secularism enshrined in the constitution – which guarantees equality for all religions – and towards Hindu majoritarian rule.

As the world’s most populous country, with one of the fastest growing economies, the outcome of the election will also have an impact internationally. India has become an increasingly important partner for countries including the UK, the US and France, which have all recently signed deals and pursued closer relationships with Delhi as a counterbalance to China.

Why is the BJP likely to win?

Modi’s BJP already commands a strong parliamentary majority after it swept the 2019 election, winning 303 seats, with votes for coalition partner taking the total to 352. This time, the party is so confident of victory that it is aiming to win more than 400 seats in the 543-seat parliament – which would be an unprecedented majority.

The BJP’s position is seen as unrivalled owing to Modi’s personal popularity and the concentration of power that has taken place under his watch, which includes highly organised party machinery and pioneering use of technology and social media as a way to reach voters.

The BJP also boasts a vast, well-organised grassroots operation of activists and volunteers and has its own formidable propaganda machine, operating across social media and messaging apps such as WhatsApp, which in previous elections has been accused of disseminating disinformation on a grand scale.

It is also considerably richer than any other party, and has far greater financial resources to spend on elections, spending an estimated almost 418bn rupees in the 2019 election.

Nonetheless, while a BJP win is seen as highly probable, questions still remain about whether the party will be able to maintain the same overwhelming parliamentary majority it has enjoyed, with a few crucial states still up in the air and simmering discontentment over unemployment and inflation.

What is the Modi factor?

A cult of personality has built up around the prime minister, who is seen as a strongman leader but also a man of the people. His humble background – growing up in a poor, low-caste family in Gujarat where he used to help his father sell tea – has helped project him as the opposite to the corrupt political elite.

As a single man with no children, he often refers to the Indian people as “Modi ka Parivar” [Modi’s family]. Every month, millions tune into his radio show, Mann Ki Baat, where he talks to ordinary people about their issues and boasts about his government’s achievements.

Modi’s face is also inescapable across the country, plastered across billboards, food rations that people receive, and even on Covid vaccine certificates, while most of the welfare schemes introduced by his government are named after him.

He has also made strategic use of the media to help build up the myth around him, tightly controlling the narrative. He has never once done a solo press conference during his 10 years as prime minister.

Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda has won him support among swathes of India’s 80% Hindu majority, often enabling him to transcend traditional caste and class barriers to win votes among poorer, rural, and lowest caste communities as well as affluent urban voters and the rising middle classes.

He has also gained accolades for being seen to have elevated India into a world power being courted the west, and many of his supporters say Modi has made them proud to be Indian.

What about the opposition?

Over the past 10 years, India’s opposition parties have faced a sustained attack by powerful state agencies, which has left them in a severely weakened position. Dozens of opposition figures have been investigated or arrested in financial and corruption cases they allege are politically motivated.

Related: ‘BJP v democracy’: India’s opposition alliance cries foul as election nears

Congress, the main opposition party that previously ruled India for decades, is no longer seen by many as a viable alternative, having resoundingly lost the previous two national elections – and more recently a flurry of state polls – to the BJP. The party of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, it now stands plagued by accusations of being an elitist, dynastic party.

In an effort to oust the BJP, 27 opposition parties including Congress came together last year to form a coalition under the acronym India. However, the effort was undermined by disputes over leadership and seat-sharing and after several party leaders switched to join the BJP, the attempt to contest the election as a cohesive bloc fell apart in most states. The coalition have also not yet put forward their prime ministerial candidate.

The government’s alleged crackdown on the opposition was seen to have escalated when Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi and one of the main leaders in the India coalition, was arrested in May in a corruption case. He remains behind bars. The government denies having any role in the arrest.

Congress has also claimed that tax authorities under central government control froze the party’s accounts, preventing it from being able to properly campaign, and that it was served tax notices for billions of rupees from cases that are decades old.

Still, support for Modi is far from uniform across India. As his opponents repeatedly point out, he won a majority in the 2019 election with only 37% of the vote.

While the BJP dominates in populous northern states known as the Hindi belt, the party has struggled to make inroads into many eastern and southern states, particularly in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where regional politics is strong, society is more religiously cohesive and Hindu nationalist politics is seen to resonate less. In this election, the BJP has been focusing much of its attention on winning seats in the south.

What are the main issues on the agenda?

Alongside a heavy emphasis on religion and nationalism, the main focus of the BJP will be what it is billing as the “Modi ki guarantee”, with the prime minister put front and centre of a campaign pledging economic development, infrastructure building and families lifted out of poverty.

Modi has been on a whirlwind tour across the country, unveiling billions of rupees worth of infrastructure projects including airports and highways and promoting his government’s welfare programmes, including free food rations, which have been popular among poorer voters.

However, while the economy is growing, much of that wealth remains concentrated at the very top and the gulf between rich and poor in India is only widening.

The biggest issues the opposition will try to capitalise on are the chronic lack of jobs, particularly among young people, inflation, which has made everyday life a struggle for poorer Indians, and the “corrupt crony capitalism” critics of the BJP say has flourished under Modi. There is also widespread anger among farmers, a huge and influential vote bloc, who say they have suffered under his government.

Congress’s manifesto also pledged to implement a nationwide caste census, which it says will expose the true levels of deprivation in the country, as well as pass a law allowing civil partnerships for LGBTQ+ couples.

Will the elections be fair?

Over its 75 years of independence, India’s elections have generally been seen as free and fair, though there have been accusations of bribes for votes. Turnout is usually high, 67% in 2019, and the results have largely not been disputed.

However, over the past decade in power, the Modi administration has been accused of undertaking various measures which opponents say skews the election pitch unfairly in favour of the BJP.

Under Modi, media watchdogs have documented an erosion of media freedom and crackdowns on independent and critical media, meaning much of India’s coverage is pro-Modi, and the independence of the judiciary is also seen to have come under attack.

The recent arrest of Kejriwal and the freezing of Congress’s accounts has prompted the US, Germany and the UN to make statements calling on India to make sure the election processes are “free and fair”.

One of the key bodies alleged to be under the thumb of the government is the Election Commission, the watchdog that is tasked with maintaining the impartiality of the polls and ruling on any campaign violations.

The government recently changed the rules so it now has majority control over Election Commission appointments. Not long after, one of the commission’s panel abruptly resigned without explanation, leaving the government free to pick the replacement.

“In the last 10 years, it looks like the Election Commission has become an extended arm of the government,” said Kapil Sibai, a member of parliament. The government denies that the selection process has become impartial.

Opposition parties have also raised repeated questions over the lack of transparency and possible hacking of electronic voting machines, but no allegations of manipulation have been proved.

What could a Modi third term mean for India?

Many believe that if the BJP retains or exceeds its strong majority, it will move quickly to further implement core policies of its Hindu nationalist agenda – just as the party did in 2019 – polarising society more than ever before.

This includes a promise to implement a uniform civil code across the country, which it is feared will erode the rights of minorities to freely practice their religion and culture.

Others fear that a third-term BJP government could bring further authoritarianism and the democratic backsliding that has been India’s trajectory since Modi took power.

However, the biggest concern by opponents is that the BJP’s goal of winning 400 seats would give it a large enough majority to amend India’s secular constitution, and formally enshrine the country as a Hindu-first nation.