Power of the People: India Goes to Polls

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Washington, DC/New Delhi – India, the world’s largest democracy with a staggering 900 million plus eligible voters, is set to host the world’s biggest election exercise from April 11 to May 19. The votes will be counted on May 23 after the elections are held in seven phases to elect a new Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament.

When incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the BJP to win 282 of the 428 seats it contested in 2014, it was the first time since 1984 a party had won an absolute majority in a general election. The win was on promises including corruption free “Achey Din (Better Days)” and bringing back alleged black money hoarded abroad but neither materialized. He had projected an image of rags to power as a childhood Chaiwala (tea-vendor).

Now Prime Minister Modi faces a performance based evaluation by the Indian voters. He has now put a prefix “Chowkidar” (the protector) in front of his name after the recent tensions with neighboring arch rival Pakistan. But one of the prominent leaders of his own ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spilled the beans as BS Yeddyurappa said the armed aerial hostilities between India and Pakistan would help his party win around two dozen seats in the upcoming general election.

Before the recent lethal suicide attack by Pakistan based terrorists, Modi looked vulnerable as the Indian National Congress party led by fourth-generation Nehru family scion Rahul Gandhi, won three major state elections. Ironically the lethal Mumbai attacks in 2008 took place five months before the elections in 2009 – but then ruling Congress party won without making national security a campaign plank. So the chances of Chowkidar title projection working wonders for Modi are bleak.

On the grass-roots level, one comes across devastating effects on the population with meagre incomes from the ill-conceived and controversial 2016 Demonetization. The government overnight rubbished valid currency and people felt the punch. The new complex and poorly executed uniform goods and services tax (GST) also had a disastrous squeeze on small and medium businesses, and many lost their livelihood in India’s huge informal economy. The Modi government is also accused of hiding damaging statistics of jobs data.

Cow vigilantism has increased the wedge between Hindus and other minorities as “cow-vigilantes” have fatally lynched dozens of non-Hindus, especially Muslims, over claims (sometimes rumors) of either dealing in beef or eating it.

There is a race to bait voters with competitive populistic offers as the BJP government announced direct cash transfers to farmers and waivers of farm loans while Congress promised to guarantee a minimum income for the poor if his party wins the elections.

In addition, there will be freebies ranging from TV sets, laptops to cash incentives along with free flowing alcohol on the sly before and during the election days.

Over the years Indian voters have proven their amazingly well-informed attitude and secretive nature in their voting patterns. May 23, the day results are announced, will be the grand finale.

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