Development, democracy dominate debate in India’s mammoth election

New Delhi — Nearly a billion Indians will be eligible to start voting Friday in the world’s biggest election, in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking a third term in office.

Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP is pitted against an opposition alliance led by the Congress Party that was formed to put up a united challenge to the powerful leader, who is widely seen as the frontrunner.  

Modi has highlighted economic growth and welfare measures for the poor as his biggest achievements. At election rallies he exhorts huge crowds to vote for him to ensure that he can continue the momentum and make India a developed country by 2047. 

“In the last 10 years, by lifting 250 million people out of poverty, we proved that we work to get results,” Modi said while releasing his party’s election manifesto last week. 

The INDIA or Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, which consists of over two dozen opposition parties, has flagged joblessness and what it says is a threat to the country’s democratic and secular credentials as key issues in the race.  

It accuses the pro-Hindu leader of polarizing the country along religious lines and weakening opposition ranks with corruption probes by federal investigative agencies.

One key leader, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, was arrested weeks before the election in connection with graft allegations. The government denies the charges of politically motivated investigations.

“This election is fundamentally a different election. I don’t think that democracy has been as much at risk, the constitution has been as much at risk as it is today,” said Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the main opposition Congress Party, as he released his party’s manifesto this month. Although Gandhi has not been projected as a prime ministerial candidate, he is widely seen as the main challenger to Modi.

Voters will choose between the competing narratives offered by Modi and the opposition over the next six weeks — the election to fill 543 of 545 seats in the lower house of parliament will be conducted in seven phases until June 1. Votes will be counted on June 4. The staggered vote enables security forces to move around the country. 

Recent surveys project that Modi will easily secure a rare, consecutive third stint in office, a feat managed only by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Ten years since he took power after decimating the Congress Party that dominated India since independence, the Indian prime minister remains hugely popular.  

He is seen as a strong, nationalist, pro-Hindu leader, who has fast-tracked development, boosted India’s global stature and delivered on promises like building a temple on the site of a razed mosque to Hindu Lord Rama – a decades-long demand by devotees in the Hindu majority country.   

“The BJP is very clearly going into this election on the shoulders of the prime minister’s image. They are very clearly keeping the Modi factor right up in front,” political analyst Sandeep Shastri told VOA. “That will help them to a certain extent offset anti-incumbency that has come in after 10 years.” 

The anti-incumbency sentiment largely centers on concerns about unemployment and inflation, which have been cited as key issues for the public, according to recent surveys. While India’s economy is growing rapidly, young, educated people are facing challenges in finding jobs. 

In a busy market in the Indian capital, New Delhi, opinion is divided on how the economy is faring. Some, like Rushil Mattta, a software engineer, are upbeat. 

“I am very optimistic. I have hope for this country and I am staying here,” said Matta, referring to the trend in earlier decades of software professionals migrating to Western countries for better opportunities.

That sentiment is not shared by others, like Surinder Ojha, a hawker who sells bags to make a living. “Livelihood is a problem. But no government solves this problem for the poor,” he says despondently. 

To woo voters, the main opposition Congress Party has promised to boost social spending and welfare payments for women, and provide 3 million government jobs and apprenticeships to college students. It also promises to reverse what it views as India’s democratic backsliding under Modi. 

Rahul Gandhi has undertaken two cross-country marches over the past 18 months to boost support for the Congress Party, but it is unclear whether that will translate into votes. The party only holds 52 seats in parliament after being routed in the last two elections and Gandhi is perceived by many as an ineffective opponent to Modi.   

“As far as Mr. Modi is concerned, there is no one on the opposite side to match him,” says political analyst Neerja Chowdhury. “Lot of people who are dissatisfied today with the BJP rule and face economic hardship, rising prices. They talk about it but turn around and say who is there on the other side?” 

The INDIA group’s hopes largely rest on putting up common candidates against the BJP to prevent splitting of opposition votes. So far, it has only been able to do that in some states. The alliance includes many powerful regional parties but has failed to come up with a common program to counter the Indian leader.

“They have the issues before them, but can they bring these before voters as a credible alternative is the question. What we see is each member of the alliance is speaking in their own voice. Each for example has its own manifesto,” says analyst Shastri.

“If you need to launch a concerted attack on the government, you need to have a clear-cut strategy, but that seems to be missing and that to a certain extent is pulling them down.” 

Surveys project Modi’s BJP could surpass its 2019 performance when it won 303 seats in parliament. But the Congress Party says that when votes are counted on June 4, the results will be much closer than expected. 

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