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EFSAS Commentary

India’s 2024 General Elections: the world’s largest democratic exercise of a staggering scale and with weighty issues


India’s general elections are scheduled to begin on 19 April, and its seven phases will take all of six weeks to complete. The results are to be announced on 4 June. Voters will elect 543 members for the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, for five-year terms. The party or coalition of parties that wins a majority of seats will nominate a candidate for Prime Minister and form a government. The elections will, by far, be the world’s largest such exercise, with nearly one billion eligible to vote. They will choose either two-term strongman Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his regional allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) grouping, or the Congress-led Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) grouping of two dozen opposition parties, and pre-poll surveys have suggested a win for Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). What the elections will throw up on 4 June is, nevertheless, anybody’s guess, and Indian elections have been known to spring unexpected surprises in the past. India’s elections are colossal, colourful and complex. Hence, rather than delve into soothsaying and speculation on the prospects of the individual parties and blocks, it may be more worthwhile to marvel at the sheer sale of the Indian electoral exercise and to look at some of the main issues that could influence the eventual outcome.

The sheer scale of the Indian exercise is mind-boggling. India’s updated electoral roll consists of 968.8 million registered voters, an astounding figure that is more than the population of Europe, and of the continents of North and South America, all put together. This multitude of Indian citizens, above the age of 18 and armed with suffrage granted by the Constitution, will decide the government for the next five years. There were 911 million electors in the 2019 elections and 834 million in 2014. In the first election after India’s independence, in 1951, the electorate was only 173 million, but that number still made it the largest election worldwide at that time. A multiparty democracy, India has about 2,660 registered political parties. Parties competing in elections each get symbols – like the ruling BJP’s lotus, the opposition Congress party’s hand, and others. These help voters easily identify candidates.

The staggering number of Indian voters necessitates commensurate levels of polling wherewithal. Against 1.037 million polling stations spread over 3.2 million sq km of territory in 2019, there are about 1.2 million booths this time around. Deployment of polling staff could jump from 12 million in 2019 to 15 million in 2024, which is more than the total electorate of the Netherlands of about 13.5 million. The electorate will cast its votes through 5.5 million electronic voting machines, of which some are located in the snow-clad mountains in the Himalayas, the deserts of Rajasthan, and the sparsely populated islands in the Indian Ocean. The 15 million polling staff and security personnel deployed by the Election Commission of India to conduct the elections will trek across glaciers and deserts, ride elephants and camels, and travel by boats and helicopters, to ensure every voter can cast their ballot.

Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar informed that voting will run in seven phases from 19 April to 1 June, the other voting dates being 26 April, 7 May, 13 May, 20 May and 25 May. Some states will complete voting on a single day, while others will have it spread across several phases. N Gopalaswami, a former Chief Election Commissioner of India, explained to Al Jazeera that the primary reason for the multi-phased election is to allow for the structured deployment of the federal security forces that are required to seamlessly conduct the elections. Gopalaswmi added, “On sheer numbers, it’s gigantic and complicated, but in a sense simple also because at each level the law is very clear about what are the duties and responsibilities of each polling official. Complications are arising as competition is becoming fierce’’. He opined that implementation of the model code of conduct has become increasingly challenging for the Election Commission.

Assembly elections for the states of Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha and Sikkim will also take place along with the national elections. As Rajiv Kumar told reporters, “We address you at a precious moment, when we as a nation are set to reiterate our pledge to electoral democracy, when Indians will together express their will once again”.

The upcoming Indian elections are also expected to be the world’s most expensive. Spending by political parties and candidates to woo voters will likely cost more than 1.2 trillion rupees ($14.4bn), said N Bhaskara Rao, chairman of the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies that specializes in election research in India and whose organization regularly estimates the country’s poll expenditure. That would be twice what was spent in India’s 2019 elections – 600 billion rupees ($7.2bn). The total spending on the United States (US) presidential and congressional races in 2020 was also $14.4bn.

After the election schedule was announced, PM Modi said that the “biggest festival of democracy” had started, and that his party would campaign on its track record of “good governance and public service”. In a series of posts on X, he added that “I have full confidence that we will get the full affection and blessings” of more than 960 million voters for the third consecutive time. Modi and his party have been in campaign mode for months. The Prime Minister has been flying around the country almost daily, inaugurating new projects, taking part in religious events, and addressing public and private meetings. In his speeches, Modi has been showcasing India’s economic growth, with India becoming the fastest-growing major economy in the world at present, as well as investment in infrastructure and welfare programmes for the poor.

The BJP’s election campaign has also stressed Modi’s achievements in the foreign policy domain, and claimed that he has added heft to India’s standing in the comity of nations. In her 2 April article for the think tank the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Manjari Chatterjee Miller touched upon the external relations perspective. She wrote, “While Indian foreign policy has had continuity between governments, Modi has certainly put his stamp on many aspects. The BJP government has promoted India’s global role by balancing a wide variety of seemingly clashing and delicate interests. In the Middle East, India has formed strong relationships with Arab nations as well as Israel. India also leads the biennial multination naval exercises known as Milan; this year, the navy of India’s close strategic partner, the United States, participated in Milan alongside the navies of Iran and Russia, two countries with whom India has long had cordial relations”

Manjari Chatterjee Miller continued, “India’s projection of its balancing role has also positioned it to claim a leading position among Global South nations. At the Group of Twenty (G20) summit in 2023, India suggested that it had the ability to champion Global South interests and build bridges with the West. Moreover, Modi has heavily advertised his own prime ministership to his domestic constituents as being instrumental in bringing about India’s prominent position. This bridging role—which can be expected to continue under a third Modi term—has been noticed both domestically and internationally. Modi enjoys much popularity among voters as the champion of India’s national prestige...”

Modi is seeking a third term in office. He has set a target of 370 seats for the BJP, 67 more than in 2019, and for its alliance to cross 400 seats. The factors the BJP is relying on to achieve its target of 400 seats range from PM Modi’s personal appeal, the BJP’s superior party organization and higher levels of financial endowments, and its skillful blending of Hindutva, nationalism, and social welfare. It also hopes to capitalize on the fervor created by the January 2024 inauguration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

The last time any Indian party crossed 370 seats was in the 1984 elections, when the Congress party won 414 seats following the assassination of the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. A victory in 2024 would make Modi, 73, only the second Prime Minister after Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s independence hero and its first PM, to win a third straight term. If Modi completes another five year term, he will be the third longest serving PM in Indian history. Jawaharlal Nehru ruled for 16 years and 9 months consecutively, while his daughter Indira Gandhi governed for a total of 15 years and 11 months.

The opposition’s INDIA grouping, spearheaded by the Congress party, in its pitch to defeat Modi is highlighting unemployment, rural distress, crony capitalism, the need for more affirmative action for the backward castes, and the need to end religious polarization and hate. Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge posted on X that “This will perhaps be the last chance to save democracy and our constitution from dictatorship. We the people of India will together fight against hatred, loot, unemployment, price rise and atrocities”.

Writing in the Indian daily The Hindu, senior analyst Varghese K. George observed that “The Opposition campaign against the Modi government hinges on the related themes of authoritarianism and corruption. The Opposition points out the erosion of institutional governance, the rule of law, and instance of favouritism bestowed upon the friends of the ruling establishment. The revelations around the electoral bonds scheme have provided the Opposition campaign enough arsenal on both counts. But whether these issues are striking a chord with the public remains to be seen. Only a decade ago, Indian public was outraged by the theory of notional loss to the exchequer but today anything even remotely comparable as public responses to governance or political issues is missing. What could be the reasons? People possibly think authoritarianism is the cure for corruption. Arvind Kejriwal, who is today facing the wrath of the BJP government, rose to prominence by promising exactly that. In a Pew study last year, 85% of respondents in India said that military rule or rule by an authoritarian leader would be good for the country - the highest share among the 24 countries surveyed”. George quoted socio-cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai as underlining that “democracy fatigue” has become pronounced in India, with a largely discredited old elite still holding ground, shrunken as it is.

Ravi Agrawal, the editor in chief of Foreign Policy, argued in his 8 April article ‘The New Idea of India’ that “Narendra Modi’s reign is producing a less liberal but more assured nation”. Explaining this article, Agrawal elaborated, “My essay in the new issue of Foreign Policy is titled ‘The New Idea of India’. Why? Well, India was always an unlikely democracy. In 1947, its founding fathers stitched together a patchwork of states, many with different languages, cultures, and cuisines, into a union. This new country was meant to be a secular, democratic republic. At its creation, the idea of India—its unifying vision—prioritized liberal democracy over any one culture or religion. This is now changing. India may still be democratic, but under two-time Prime Minister Narendra Modi, culture and religion are gaining salience over secularism. India is becoming a Hindu-first country. This much is well documented by now. But while the world often sees this as a top-down change led by a charismatic individual, I wanted to advance two provocations: first, that Modi is in fact fulfilling a vision of India that has existed for a century, and second, that the success of this project may be driven by demand as much as it is by supply. If Modi wins a third term this summer, an illiberal India might not be a blip but the norm”.

It is in this milieu that the Election Commission of India will on 4 June complete the electoral calculations needed to decide who won the elections, and the President of India will then invite the winning party to form a government – who she finally has the honour of inviting may actually determine the ideological future of India for quite some time to come.