Narendra Modi seeks to secure third term in power

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India has kicked off a six-week election, as Indians began going to the polls in a closely watched contest that is expected to return Prime Minister Narendra Modi to another five-year term in power.

Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party is seeking a third consecutive victory and an increased majority that would tighten its control over India’s politics, economy and society. His party currently holds just over half of the seats in the Lok Sabha, or lower house.

The election, voting in which opened at 7am on Friday, will be the world’s largest, with a record 968mn eligible voters going to the polls in seven staggered phases across various regions and concluding on June 1. Results will be reported on June 4. 

The 73-year-old incumbent, who is supported by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance coalition, has campaigned under the slogan “Modi’s guarantees”, emphasising welfare schemes that benefit hundred of millions of Indians. He has also repeated the catchphrase Viksit Bharat (“Developed India”), referring to his pledge to transform the world’s most populous country into a developed nation by 2047.

On the campaign trail, Modi has also touted his success in raising India’s stature on the global stage, building roads, airports and other infrastructure and presiding over the opening in January of a sprawling Hindu temple complex that was built on the site of a destroyed mosque in Ayodhya. 

Challenging Modi’s camp is the opposition Indian National Congress and about two dozen centre-left opposition parties, who are fighting what they say are the BJP’s superior funds and sway over the media and law enforcement agencies. 

The opposition Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A.) has accused Modi’s government of courting majority Hindu voters with divisive anti-Muslim rhetoric and seeking to rig the vote by arresting opponents. Two regional political leaders from opposition parties, Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and the eastern Jharkhand state’s chief minister Hemant Soren have been jailed this year in corruption cases. 

Modi has rejected accusations that his government has abused law enforcement and tax agencies to target opponents. 

Congress candidate Rahul Gandhi, India’s most prominent opposition figure, has also railed on Modi’s ties to billionaires Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani and attacked India’s “electoral bonds” political fundraising scheme, which the BJP was the biggest beneficiary of before it was recently voided by the Supreme Court. 

Modi has hit back against Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather served as prime ministers, as well as at regional parties that hold power in India’s south and east, accusing them of pursuing “dynastic politics”. 

Pre-election polls widely point to a third victory for Modi, who has set an ambitious target of 400 seats in total, comprising 370 seats for the BJP, up from the 303 it won in 2019, and another 30 for its NDA allies.

A pre-poll survey by Delhi-based pollster CSDS-Lokniti found Modi’s BJP-led NDA held a 12 per cent lead over the rival I.N.D.I.A. alliance.

“A third term Modi BJP-led government is a foregone conclusion,” said Chietigj Bajpaee, senior research fellow for south Asia with Chatham House. “The real question is the strength of the mandate, which will decide how decisive the government will be in pushing ahead not only with its economic reform agenda, but also its more divisive identity-driven politics.”

India’s economy is one of the world’s fastest-growing but unemployment remains high and opposition voters have seized on joblessness to attack Modi’s economic record. The CSDS-Lokniti survey also highlighted that unemployment and prices were the two critical concerns for nearly half of voters.

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