On Thursday, India will announce the results of the world’s largest democratic exercise, after hundreds of millions of people voted over six weeks to select the country’s Parliament.
But more broadly, the election has become a sweeping referendum on the last five years of governance by Narendra Modi, the country’s dominant and divisive prime minister. It is likely to be one of the world’s most expensive elections, with parties estimated to have spent a total of as much as $7 billion. The Election Commission alone has seized about $1 billion in cash and bonds it says were meant to sway the vote.
Mr. Modi is casting himself as a strong leader who can protect India. The opposition parties, including the once-dominant Indian National Congress, are still reeling from Mr. Modi’s crushing victory in 2014. But if they have found any accord, it is on this argument: that Mr. Modi’s Hindu-first politics has made India less tolerant, his economic agenda has failed and he has to go.
Mr. Modi, in a slump, made his campaign about national security.
Months before the election’s start, Mr. Modi was struggling to deliver on many of the promises he had made when he swept to power five years ago.
Then came the terrorist attack in Pulwama, in the disputed region of Kashmir. After a suicide bombing that killed dozens of Indian soldiers there was claimed by a Pakistani-based group, Mr. Modi sent fighter jets to conduct airstrikes within Pakistan.
The cross-border incursions took an embarrassing turn for India after one of its fighter jets was shot down and the pilot was captured and quickly released by Pakistan. Critics accused Mr. Modi of being willing to start a war for a political boost. But his rhetoric, combined with positive coverage by the domestic news media, left many Indians with the impression that the prime minister was willing to go to any length to ensure the country’s strength and security.
The state of the Indian economy: what the opposition wanted to focus on.
In 2014, Mr. Modi won over voters with promises that he would eradicate corruption and keep the economy growing quickly. His record has been mixed.
He has succeeded in cutting back the red tape afflicting India’s businesses and foreign investors, streamlining regulations and tackling tax evasion. But those steps have not translated to more robust growth. He has struggled to revive infrastructure projects and failed to create enough jobs, and his government is now accused of covering up data on how bad unemployment is.
More than half of India’s 1.3 billion people still rely at least partly on agriculture. But farmers are reeling as Mr. Modi struggles to balance their needs against efforts to maintain low consumer prices.
Opposition parties, led by the Congress party, repeatedly attacked Mr. Modi over what they called his economic failures, accusing the prime minister of using national security to deflect attention from how “the economy is actually in tatters.” Painting Mr. Modi as an ally of the corporate giants, they have campaigned on promises of cash transfers and loan waivers for the poor.
Votes by record numbers of women and young people will shape the results.
Female turnout has soared in recent years, reaching near parity with that of men. This year, women are expected to vote in record numbers. High participation is also expected from Indians ages 18 to 25, whose turnout in the 2014 election surpassed that of the rest of the population for the first time. They largely supported Mr. Modi in that election, encouraged by his promise of economic opportunities.
But Mr. Modi has struggled to respond to young Indians’ demands for job creation, and the opposition has latched onto that issue. Women also feel disenfranchised. Their record turnout has forced parties to more directly address issues of safety and welfare, but they are still underrepresented in Parliament: Women made up only 8.8 percent of this year’s candidates, a rise of about 1 percent over 2014.
These two constituencies could play a decisive role in the election depending on whether they back Mr. Modi for a second term or switch to other parties in large numbers.
A wave of Hindu nationalism has divided India, and its voters.
Five years of Mr. Modi’s government saw a rise in Hindu nationalism, creating an environment of fear for the country’s minority groups.
Mr. Modi has a long history with a conservative Hindu political movement that strives to make India a Hindu state. But the Indian Constitution is secular, and the extent to which Mr. Modi’s party has mixed religion with politics and governance is unprecedented. His victory was widely seen as emboldening extremists, and there have been more cases of lynch mobs targeting minority groups, and Muslims in particular, since he was elected.
During the campaign this year, Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party seemed to intensify its Hindu right-wing rhetoric. Whether voters reward or punish that choice will be one of the most important takeaways from the biggest elections in the world.