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women in colourful saris line up outside a building which has soldiers in it in india, ready to vote
The millions of voters in Indian elections means long lines and high security (Image: Diptendu Dutta/Getty Images)

SocietyMay 1, 2024

What you need to know about the world’s biggest election, happening right now

women in colourful saris line up outside a building which has soldiers in it in india, ready to vote
The millions of voters in Indian elections means long lines and high security (Image: Diptendu Dutta/Getty Images)

India’s election involves hundreds of millions of people and is a months-long affair. Here’s how voting works and what’s at stake.

The biggest-ever election in world history started on April 19, with more than 10% of the world’s population eligible to vote. Elections in India, the world’s most populous country cost billions of dollars, involve millions of polling booths around the country and thousands of political parties. The scale is truly impressive – as is the fact that many people are treating the election result as a foregone conclusion, assuming that the popular and polarising incumbent prime minister, Narendra Modi, will win another term.

Here’s everything you need to know about India’s election.

Who’s contending this election? 

While India has thousands of political parties, the main parties currently are the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP. The BJP and its leader Narendra Modi have been in power for the last 10 years, while Congress has been in opposition. 

Congress is part of a loosely left and centrist alliance called INDIA, an attempt by 28 of the country’s fractured opposition parties to unite against the BJP, but due to internal disagreements (like how to share seats), this alliance has mostly collapsed. India’s opposition parties have also been attacked by the government; in the last decade, more than 100 opposition politicians have been investigated or arrested by India’s financial crime unit. In response, some have joined the BJP – and had the charges dropped

The BJP is a more right-wing party, known for equating Indian identity with the Hindu religion. While it’s relatively socially conservative, it’s also perceived as quite supportive to businesses, including those belonging to India’s super-rich, who have donated billions of dollars to the party. 

with an indian and nz flag in the background, Indian priminister narendra modi with white hair and beard and a blue vest talks to chris Hipkins, a white man with light brownish reddish hair. the photo is quite dim
Former PM Chris Hipkins meets Narendra Modi (Photo: Pool)

What’s at stake?

The sheer scale of India means: a lot! Despite some strong economic growth, youth unemployment (ages 20-24) is around 44%; many people with a university education still can’t get jobs. There’s ongoing tension with India’s neighbours China and Pakistan; all three states have huge armies and nuclear capabilities. While India’s per-capita emissions are low, its huge population means that it is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, which is contributing to natural disasters within India as well. Under the BJP, India’s 200 million Muslims have been subject to increasing violence as well as what many see as direct targeting from the government and Modi himself

Who is Modi? 

Narendra Modi has been prime minister of India since 2014. He’s the leader of the BJP, a party that grew out of a pro-Hindu movement which started before India gained independence in 1947. He doesn’t have kids, and often refers to the country as his family. His personal popularity is huge, especially among Hindus, the nearly billion-strong religious affiliation that he most champions. By most opinion polls, Modi and the BJP will remain in power after the election. 

Modi often touts himself as an example of someone who has risen from humble origins and succeeded. There are also some parts of his personal story he doesn’t trumpet to the same extent, including a woman he is legally married to but hasn’t seen for decades. To understand more of Modi’s background if you’ve never followed Indian politics, this limited-run podcast series from Australian broadcaster Avani Dias is an excellent primer. 

How does voting actually work? 

Voting law says everyone has to have a polling booth within two kilometres of them, which leads to dramatic images of electronic voting machines being taken to remote locales in every election; with 969 million eligible voters, this is an enormous exercise in getting to every person in the country. Voting, which happens every five years, has been almost exclusively done with electronic machines for the last four elections, since 2004 (there are exceptions for people who have physical limitations that prevent them from getting to a voting booth). 

a woman with medium brown skin, wearing a scarf over her head and holding a child with a green shirt, with a finger staned with dark brown/red ink in the foreground
A woman in the state of Assam shows the indelible ink on her finger, a marker after voting to prevent double-ups. (Image: David Talukdar/Getty)

The voting is done in seven stages through the country, which helps ensure that there are security forces available at each voting location. As many as 12,000 people can go through a single polling station in a big city in a single day. Turnout is usually relatively high; 67% of eligible people voted in the last election in 2019. 

What unique factors are involved in India’s elections? 

Religion. According to its constitution, India is a secular country. In effect, however, discussion of religion is deeply embedded in the country’s politics. Modi’s BJP has particularly mobilised Hinduism, including promising to build, then opening, a temple based on a site where a mosque used to stand before it was destroyed in religious riots. This was a key promise the party made at the last election, and Modi consecrated the temple. Modi has been accused of not acting quickly to suppress riots that killed hundreds of Muslims and Hindus when he was the head of India’s Gujarat state in 2002; more recently, he has excluded Muslims from a citizenship law offering amnesty to migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Just last week, he was accused of hate speech after referring to Muslims as “infiltrators” in a campaign speech.

Have there been any other controversies? 

There’s no election without controversy, and India is no exception. There are too many to list here, but in addition to the sometimes-violent debates within India’s parliament, leading opposition politician Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi, was arrested under claims of corruption, which he denies. India’s Congress party also says that its bank accounts have been frozen, impacting its ability to contest the election. 

Wait, so is there an opposition party?

Yes, dozens; the most prominent is India’s Congress party. Congress was the biggest party in India for many decades; its current leader, Rahul Gandhi, is the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru; his grandmother and father were Congress leaders and Indian prime ministers too. In the 2019 election, Congress received 19.5% of the vote.

How might New Zealand be affected by the outcome? 

India’s huge economy and population have been seen as an economic resource for New Zealand. It’s one of the biggest sources of international students, who are key to the New Zealand tertiary education sector. New Zealand has a significant Indian diaspora population, with more than 5% of the population identifying as Indian at the last census (the 2023 census results are due to be released in May). 

In the lead up to the 2023 election, Christopher Luxon said he wanted to sign a free trade agreement  with India, but there are several barriers to this, including India’s protection of its co-operative dairy sector. Luxon has said that he is planning to send a trade delegation to India later this year; the outcome of the Indian election may affect how this delegation is received

When will we know the result?

After the seven phases of voting, the result will be announced on June 4. 

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