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The enormous stakes of India’s election

The 2024 Indian election is the largest in world history: Nearly 1 billion people are eligible to cast their ballots. Administering such a giant election is an immensely difficult task, especially in a middle-income country where poverty remains all too commo…



The enormous stakes of India’s election
The enormous stakes of India’s election
The 2024 Indian election is the largest in world history: Nearly 1 billion people are eligible to cast their ballots. Administering such a giant election is an immensely difficult task, especially in a middle-income country where poverty remains all too common. There are dozens of different parties on the ballot, with all sorts of different fault lines — including caste, religion, language, gender, and wealth— playing a role in shaping Indian voters’ decisions. But distilled down to its essence, the election is about one really big thing: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s democracy-threatening quest to revolutionize the Indian state. If the polling is even close to right, he'll win a mandate to finish what he started. The basics of the Indian election Since India booted out the British in 1947, the country’s elections have been one of the democratic world’s great marvels. Any election in a large country poses logistical challenges — just look at some of the lines at polling places in the US. Those challenges were multiplied a hundred-fold in a post-colonial country full of villages without electricity or running water. Yet India’s nonpartisan Election Commission has somehow managed to run consistently well-regarded contests for decades. The 2024 election has been a lengthy process. Voting began on April 19 and has proceeded in seven stages until a conclusion on June 1. Results are expected just three days later, on June 4. India has a parliamentary political system: control of the prime minister’s office is determined by majority vote in the Lok Sabha, the legislature’s lower house. This means that, outside of Modi’s own constituency in the northern city of Varanasi, Indian voters aren’t directly casting ballots for him. Instead, they’re voting for the local members of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or its many rivals. But there’s no doubt that the prime minister is taking center stage in this contest. He’s running for a third term, which is exceptionally rare in Indian politics. Only two other prime ministers — Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, the most influential leaders in India’s post-independence history — have won three separate elections. There’s reason to believe that Modi belongs on that “most influential” list, for better or (more likely) for worse. Since first taking office in 2014, he has aimed to transform the very identity of the Indian state. He has already made a lot of headway. Post-independence India is a formally secular state. Nehru and India’s other founding leaders, like the jurist B.R. Ambedkar, believed that such a complex and diverse society — India has 22 official languages and multiple religions — could not survive on sectarian lines. Even before independence, however, a counter-movement called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) took the opposite position: that India is a state for Hindus, with Muslims and other religious minorities positioned as interlopers (or worse). The BJP is the electoral wing of the RSS; Modi has been a member of the RSS since he was eight years old. The principal goal of Modi’s time in office has been turning RSS ideology, called Hindutva, into the ruling doctrine of the Indian government. He has been remarkably successful: Longstanding Hindutva goals, once seen as unlikely extremist dreams, have become reality. Examples include passing a citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims and revoking the self-determination rights of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state. To ensure nothing can stand in the way, Modi has taken a sledgehammer to Indian democracy. His government has jailed opposition political leaders, helped friendly oligarchs consolidate control over the press, intimidated the courts, repressed protests, twisted election law, and undermined the independence of the Election Commission. His government’s repression has gone international: In a recent piece, I revealed the existence of an extensive campaign to threaten American critics of Modi’s human rights record into silence. There’s every indication Modi’s crackdown on both democracy and minority rights will continue if the BJP triumphs in this election. Which means the stakes basically couldn’t be higher. Modi will almost certainly win — but the election still really matters At this point, a third Modi term looks overwhelmingly likely. Polling has long indicated that the BJP is a near-lock to win a majority in the Lok Sabha. Modi is personally very popular; at a time when most incumbents globally are struggling, Morning Consult’s international tracking poll found that Modi is more popular than any other leader in the survey. There are many reasons for his popularity beyond support for his ideology among Hindu voters — including strong if uneven economic growth — but that’s certainly part of the story. India’s many opposition parties are in disarray, with a strategic alliance to coordinate efforts against the BJP yielding limited gains. The historically dominant Congress party, the party of Nehru and Indira Gandhi, is a shell of its former self: its leading figure, Rahul Gandhi, has a (slightly unfair) reputation as a nepo baby who isn’t up to the task of competing with a towering and charismatic politician like Modi. In other words, it’s very likely that the BJP would win even a completely fair election. That this election is taking place on a tilted playing field, with everything from the media environment to the campaign finance system stacked in the incumbent’s favor, means that we can be all but certain of a third Modi term. Yet even if you grant that, there are some real stakes left in the contest. While a BJP victory seems inevitable, its margin of victory is much harder to predict — and quite important for India’s future. If it commands a two-thirds majority, it will have enough votes to amend the Indian constitution. If it has an even larger majority — the three-quarters majority the prime minister has said he’s shooting for — then he’ll have a clear popular mandate to pursue sweeping change. But if the party falls short of its stated goals, or even loses seats, it's possible that Modi’s assault on Indian secularism and democracy might be slowed. There’s a lot going on in the Indian election. But in essence, its highest stakes center on one fundamental question: How much power will the Indian electorate hand to one of the world’s most dangerous authoritarian leaders?