Voting begins in India’s election with Modi widely expected to win third term

<span>A poster of Modi in Dantewada district in Chhattisgarh. Surveys show Modi to be India’s most popular political leader by a wide margin.</span><span>Photograph: Idrees Mohammed/AFP/Getty Images</span>
A poster of Modi in Dantewada district in Chhattisgarh. Surveys show Modi to be India’s most popular political leader by a wide margin.Photograph: Idrees Mohammed/AFP/Getty Images

Voting has begun in India’s mammoth general election, as Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party hopes to increase its parliamentary majority amid allegations that the country’s democracy has been undermined since it came to power 10 years ago.

India’s elections are the largest democratic exercise in the world, with more than 969 million voters, amounting to more than 10% of the world’s population. The voting began at 8am on Friday, when polling opened at 102 constituencies across the country, and will continue over the next six weeks, in seven phases, until 1 June. All the results will be counted and declared on 4 June.

The elections have been described by analysts at the most predictable polls India has held in decades, with Modi and his BJP widely expected to win a third term in power.

While surveys show Modi to be India’s most popular political leader by a wide margin, political opponents have also accused the government of “skewing the pitch” of the election and eroding the integrity of India’s democracy and its electoral processes.

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Critics allege that the BJP government has systematically used tools of the state to go after and jail political opponents and undermined the independence of key state institutions such as the election commission – which oversees and enforces election rules – and the judiciary, charges the government denies.

The BJP government is also accused of eroding the freedom of the press and attempting to suppress critical media. India’s press freedom ranking has fallen by more than 20 places since Modi came to power in 2014.

Rahul Gandhi, a former leader in the Congress party who lost the past two elections to Modi, recently called the upcoming election a “rigged match”, describing the fight against the BJP as a fight for “India’s democracy and constitution”.

Modi’s strength going into the polls has been attributed in part to his fervent Hindu nationalist agenda, which has emphasised returning the country to past Hindu civilisational greatness and has garnered considerable support in the Hindu majority country.

This has been seen to come at a cost to India’s minorities, particularly its 200 million Muslims, who have faced increasing persecution, allegedly discriminatory laws and documented violence by the state and rightwing Hindu outfits affiliated with the BJP.

Among Modi’s voters was Bharat Sarkhejiye, 53, who runs an Ayurvedic medicine business in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. He described the prime minister as a “dynamic leader who is giving our country a new image and earning respect around the world for every Indian”.

“The BJP government under the leadership of Modi is important because they have bigger goals for the country,” said Sarkhejiye. “It is not about issues of roads and electricity, it is about the direction in which the country is going. Hindus have been discriminated against for a long time, and the only hope for us is Modi. I would be happy for them to change the constitution.”

The BJP’s campaign has also pushed a narrative of economic growth, with India now the world’s fastest-growing economy, as well as infrastructure building, generous welfare schemes and international recognition of India as a great emerging world power courted by world leaders.

Modi’s own personal popularity as a strongman populist leader has also played a central role. The BJP’s central campaign message is “Modi ki guarantee” [Modi’s guarantee] – a nod to the cult of personality that has built up around him over the past decade.

Modi’s populist nationalist narrative has been given a further pre-election boost by events such as India’s inaugural landing on the moon last year, and the opening of the Ram Mandir temple in the holy city of Ayodhya in January, which was built on the site of a destroyed mosque and had been a core BJP pledge for decades.

“Under Modi, India could go to the moon and at the same time be proud of its culture and roots. Modi talks of development, dignity, and undoing historical wrongs,” said Divya, 27, an engineer from Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, who will vote for the BJP on Friday.

Milan Vaishnav, the director of the south Asia programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, described the election as a “referendum on a decade of Modi’s governance”.

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Vaishnav emphasised that the BJP’s strong position going into the election was in part due to the enduringly weak state of the opposition, which is seen to have failed to present a coherent alternative narrative or strong national leadership to go up against Modi.

While 27 opposition parties, including Congress, came together to form a coalition under the acronym INDIA last year, they could not come to agreements over leadership and seat-sharing and are still seen as fragmented.

However, Vaishnav emphasised that the opposition had been further undermined by actions taken by the government. He pointed to recent accusations that attacks on opposition figures had been amped up in the build-up to the election. The Delhi chief minister and leader of the Aam Aadmi party, Arvind Kejriwal, was recently jailed in a corruption case and the Congress party has alleged that millions of its party funds were frozen by the tax authorities.

A recent court ruling also exposed how much the BJP had benefited from an opaque form of campaign finance, known as electoral bonds. The party received more than 60bn rupees (£570m) in donations, far more than any other political party.

“There’s no doubt that this government has used all of the tools in its toolkit to try to shape the playing field of this election,” added Vaishnav.

Such is the BJP’s confidence, Modi has spoken repeatedly of its intention to win more than 370 seats, which would be a major leap from the 303 it won in 2019, and for the alliance it leads to win more than 400 seats. Plans have already been made for the first 100 days of its third term.

The opposition has voiced concern that should the BJP win a significant majority, it will move to change India’s constitution, which enshrines the country’s status as a secular republic, and instead formalise it as a Hindu-first country. While some BJP figures have spoken about this subject individually, the party has denied it is the intention.

Issues such as chronic unemployment, particularly for young people, and rising costs of everyday goods due to inflation could count against the BJP at the polls.

Ajay Lakhotra, 23, a law student from Jammu City, usually a BJP stronghold, said he would be voting for Congress on Friday, citing the unemployment rate in his area, which was among the highest in the country.

“If we look at the BJP, in their past two terms, their policies have been focused on communal politics and against the idea of India,” said Lakhotra. “Under the BJP, our country is going towards extremism. As a young voter, this concerns me: I want development, better jobs, and a country that offers equal opportunities to people.”

Youngish Chopdar a 35-year-old Muslim who runs a restaurant in Jaipur, Rajasthan, said he feared what a third term for the BJP could mean for minorities.

“I will be voting for Congress because that is the only solution to counter the BJP’s politics of dividing India,” he said. “As a Muslim, I do not see a safe future if the BJP comes to power again. We need a strong opposition. In this situation, voting against the BJP is a revolutionary act.”

Aakash Hassan contributed reporting from Delhi