Since April 11, the world’s largest democracy has been voting in rounds for the national election that will end on May 19, with the final results announced on May 23. Nearly 900 million of India's 1.3 billion citizens are eligible to vote for thousands of candidates vying for 543 seats in the lower house of Parliament.
In the third round of voting that took place this week, 188 million Indians across 13 states and two federally-controlled territories voted for candidates in 117 parliamentary districts, making it the largest of the six rounds of voting. Prime Minister Narendra Modi accompanied his elderly mother to his voting place in his home state of Gujarat to cast his ballot. All voting is electronic and ballots will be counted on May 23, which is expected to take a couple of hours with the results are announced that day.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by PM Modi, has governed since winning a majority with 282 seats in 2014, making it the first political party in 30 years to win an outright majority in a general election. 272 seats are required for a majority or coalition government, which then chooses the next Prime Minister. The BJP supports Hindu nationalism and PM Modi’s appeal is based largely on support for this Hindu-centric worldview as well as his vows to run a clean, corruption-free government dedicated to economic growth. India is the world’s second-most populous country, after China, and maintains good relations with both Russia and the United States.
The leading opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC) led by Rahul Gandhi, has a long history of corruption. The secular, center-left INC led India for most of the nation’s post-independence history. Mr. Gandhi’s father, grandmother, and great-grandfather were Prime Ministers. There are also five other national parties, 26 state parties and more than 2,000 smaller political parties registered in this year’s election.
Across the economy, Indians, particularly the highly educated, are struggling to find jobs. Surveys consistently rate this as the primary voter concern, especially among Millennials. India’s population is young, with more than half of people younger than 25, and it is growing quickly making the need for job creation critical. It is estimated that within the next 30 years, more than 200 million Indians will enter the workforce, increasing pressure on an economy that is already facing record unemployment. Forced marriage, forced labor, and gang rape are ongoing problems that many Indian women face.
Caste and religious divisions are factors in India being among the lowest rankings of social mobility in the world. Most Indians, who are of lower castes, are employed in informal sectors, such as farmhands, domestic workers, rickshaw drivers and recyclers. In recent decades, India has made enormous progress lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, improving literacy and life span, and turning its economy into a global powerhouse. However, much of its economic might is based purely on the size of its population and the average Indian makes around $5 a day, on par with developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
High turnout and many Indians voting along caste or religious lines result in major changes from election to election. Rural and urban voters each have their own primary issues of concern. 70 percent of Indians still live in rural areas and gave more than 60 percent of their votes to BJP in 2014. This year, intense economic stress caused by severe droughts and stagnant farm incomes has made the party less popular among the 260 million Indians in farm families. Urban Indians live in increasing pollution and overburdened transport networks, where megacities such as New Delhi and Mumbai each have more than 20 million residents. Urban voters struggle to find a job despite the fact that India’s economy is growing quickly Rising oil prices also push up inflation, and many urban Indians say they are worse off than they were five years ago.
India’s Muslims number approximately 200 million or 15 percent of the country’s population. The BJP’s Hindu-centric politics have alienated many Muslims, and Congress is expected to win most of the Muslim vote despite their politicians being wary to side too publicly with Muslims and concerned about being accused of abandoning Hindu beliefs. One of PM Modi ‘s campaign pillars has centered on national security and fighting terrorism, saying “voter ID is much more powerful than an IED,” in reference to improvised explosive devices typically used by terrorists. PM Modi gained support with his response to February's suicide car bomb attack that killed more than 40 Indian security forces in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. Tensions with Pakistan were recently renewed when Indian fighter jets crossed over the border into neighboring Pakistan and conducted airstrikes on an alleged training camp operated by the Pakistan-based outlawed Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militant group, which reportedly claimed responsibility for the Kashmir suicide bombing.