India votes in world’s largest election

Dear Editor,
Hundreds of millions of Indians voted in five phases of balloting so far. Two phases of voting remain — one this Sunday and the other the following Sunday — to complete the process.
The general election has been billed as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The campaign takes the form of a Presidential election. Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a historic landslide in the last elections, in 2014.
Modi staked his claim in 2014 to lead India on a tough image against terrorism and a truly secular government without favouring any religious or caste group. He has been tough against those who infiltrated the porous borders of India to spread terror. Modi ordered surgical strikes against camps in Pakistan in February. His action won overwhelming approval from the nation.
In India, people generally vote against the incumbent. Most of the incumbent MPs of the BJP are disliked, including the popular Bollywood actress Hema Malini, who is seeking re-election from Mathura, the holy city of Lord Krishna.
But voters tell this writer they want to give Modi a second term; thus they will vote for the incumbents on account of Modi, who remains the BJP’s main vote-getter.
Modi is campaigning everywhere on behalf of the candidates of his party, the BJP, which is in an alliance with other parties called the NDA. The largest opposition party is the Congress, which is in an alliance with other parties called the UPA. Sworn enemies in the opposition have come together to defeat Modi, but opinion polls put the NDA ahead of the UPA by almost two to one. However, the polls say the NDA will not win a majority of the seats. It takes 272 seats to form the government in a parliament of 543 elected members of the lower house, or Lok Sabha.
This writer, in his own informal polls, puts Modi ahead of the Congress and likely to come close to a majority of seats, giving him a second five-year term in office. Without an opposition alliance, the BJP would win over 300 seats. As it is now, the party is struggling to capture 250 seats. The BJP won 283 seats in the last election.
The seven-phase elections commenced on 19th April and will conclude on 19th May. Counting of ballots is on 23rd May. There are some 970 million eligible voters across the country. This is the largest election ever conducted in the world.
The tone of the campaign has been acrimonious, especially against opposition leader Rahul Gandhi and two of his alliance partners, Akilesh Yadav of SP and Mayawati of BSP.
The BJP faces strong challenges from other regional parties in the south and in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been trying to bring together the parties to form a coalition to unseat Modi. Rahul’s father (Rajiv), grandmother (Indira) and great-grandfather (Jawaharlal Nehru) were all Indian prime ministers.
His mother, the Italian-born Sonia, declined the PM position in 2004. Rahul himself declined the PM position in 2009. His sister, Priyanka Gandhi, formally launched her political career in January. She is not contesting a seat, although it was announced she would contest against Modi. Had she done so, she would have been trounced.
Modi is contesting in the prestigious Benaras seat. This writer’s poll has him well ahead to win by a landslide. Priyanka is campaigning for her brother and mother Sonia, who is contesting a seat Rae Bareli, from Uttar Pradesh, the state where 70 percent of Indo-Caribbean people trace their roots. Rahul is also contesting from UP in Amethi constituency. Fearing he would lose, Rahul has fielded himself in a second seat in Kerala state. In India, a candidate can run for more than one seat, but can only represent one seat in parliament and resign the others if elected from more than one.
The Lok Sabha, or lower house of Parliament, has 543 elected seats, and any party or coalition needs a minimum of 272 MPs to form a government. Opinion polls say Rahul will lose Amethi. However, this writer found from his survey that Rahul would win Amethi and also in Kerala.
The main issues in the campaign are high unemployment, national security, and India’s role in world affairs. Caste and religion also play critical roles in how people vote. Chamars, called dalits in India, are voting for the BSP led by Mayawati. The Yadav cast is voting for the Yadav party, called SP. At Friday namaz before each vote, imams instruct Muslims to vote for the party they feel would defeat the BJP. But Muslims are divided, with women supporting BJP because the party has given women equal status to that of males, angering the latter. In addition, the BJP has sought to outlaw multiple marriages and triple talaq divorce in which a man simply tells his wife he divorces her.
It is hard to predict the exact number of seats each alliance would win, but everywhere this writer has travelled, voters tell him the NDA under Modi would be returned to office for another term, unless something major goes wrong.

Yours faithfully,
Vishnu Bisram
(In India)