It is difficult to avoid talk of the general election. There is a sense in which it is a foregone conclusion. Voters are not overly convinced by either of the main parties. All of this will be familiar to readers of Critical Mass. But this describes not the UK but the largest “democracy” in the world – India.

Tomorrow 970 million registered voters will be involved in an election which will take 44 days to complete. The results will not be announced until 4th June.

Election officials will travel across the country, which spans 3 million square kilometres (six times the size of France), to ensure that no voter has to travel more than 2 km to vote. In 2019 election officials travelled almost 500km through winding mountain tracks to set up a polling station for a single voter in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, on the border with China.

These numbers are awe-inspiring but the politics of India are worthy of comment too. The Lok Sabha, equivalent to the House of Commons, has 545 seats which will be contested on a first past the post system. 

Currently the BJP, led by Narendra Modi, rules as part of the National Democratic Alliance. Their main challengers are the Indian National Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi. But, according to opinion polls, Modi will be a difficult man to beat. In recent polls some 80% of Indians have expressed their satisfaction with the current Prime Minister. This is particularly the case among the 18 million young people registered to vote for the first time.

The dissatisfaction with Modi comes from the left, who see him as anti-trade union and authoritarian. This tendency was seen in the way in which the BJP started electioneering prior to naming the date of the election. Though it has to be said that most ruling parties do try to steal a march on their rivals if they can. However, Al Jazeera recently published an opinion piece by Apoorvanand, who points out that changes to the Election Commission have undermined its claims to impartiality with independent members being replaced by government appointees. As Apoorvanand says: “It is as if the captain of only one of the several teams participating in a game appoints the umpire.”  

Despite his popularity in the polls, Modi has a reputation for social conservatism. He has been engaged in a conflict with farmers who have been protesting about their rising debt. Despite being one of the fastest growing economies in the world, India still has youth unemployment of over 40%. At the same time the provision of welfare has been expanded and this has been a massive vote winner for Modi. Hundreds of programmes deliver benefits – electricity, affordable housing, toilets, and cash – to roughly 950 million people across the country. Recently the government announced that a programme providing free food grains to more than 800 million Indians will continue for five more years.

This success has started a rush to compete on welfare. As Yamini Aiyar, former president and CEO of the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi says, “It’s a sign of a healthy democracy that this is what governments would like to compete on.” However, she also points out that, whilst these programmes provide immediate relief, which is welcome, they do little to tackle the structural poverty and inequality which is endemic in India.

The money for these welfare programmes, however, is found by taking cash for public provision of education and health. Thus, robbing Peter to pay Paul. As millions of poorer voters are thankful for the extra cash they receive, millions more find that their right to education and healthcare is compromised. Modi will not worry, provided the voters return him yet again to the position of Pradhan Mantri (Prime Minister).

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