As the world’s largest democracy goes to the polls over the coming weeks, Foreign Editor David Pratt examines the herculean task of conducting India’s general election and some of the worrying trends that underpin it.

It’s big, brash and never without considerable controversy. The statistics and logistics alone are mindboggling. Approximately 900 million people over the age of 18 are eligible to vote, for a field of around 8,000 candidates.

Having started on April 11 it will be conducted in seven phases over six weeks ending on May 19. In that time teams of polling officers will traverse jungles, trek using oxygen cylinders into the high Himalaya and navigate crocodile-infested swamps to ensure every voter gets to cast their ballot. The rules, after all, are clear – no voter should have to travel more than 1.24 miles in order to vote. Welcome to the biggest democratic show on the planet, India’s general election.

Every five years when national polls like this are held, the complexity of the undertaking in such a large and populous developing country presents inordinate challenges and this year is no exception.

So much is at stake, with prime minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hoping to stave off a feisty opposition, led by the Indian National Congress (INC), to retain control for another term.

But while India’s elections in terms of scale might be unique, many of the challenges the current poll has thrown up are the same that confront other democracies globally, be it the role of social media or the presence of nationalism.

Viewed widely as a referendum on Modi himself, already the ballot has courted controversy. In one constituency in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, for example, voting was temporarily cancelled after accusations that a regional party had distributed cash to voters. Elsewhere several political leaders from Modi’s BJP party have been suspended from campaigning for breaking electoral rules.

Back in 2014, Modi’s campaign was laced with the language of hope and economic progress, which propelled him to a single party majority in parliament. On taking office he then launched a series of ambitious economic programmes, including “Make in India,” “Skill India” and “Digital India”, promising to usher in a new era of prosperity for his country.

For some time following this Modi enjoyed high approval ratings and as recently as 2017, 88% of the Indian public held a favourable view of him, according to a survey conducted by the US-based Pew Research Centre think tank. But since then his star has begun to wane and he and his BJP have had an altogether more mixed record.

“Dissatisfaction with the direction of the country is connected to how people feel about the economy. The ratio of Indians who believe the country’s economic condition is good has fallen by 27 points, from 83% in 2017 to 56% in 2018,” observed Bruce Stokes, an associate fellow at Chatham House writing recently in Foreign Policy magazine.

Modi has failed to tackle unemployment as promised, with nearly 19 million Indians jobless and roughly 39 million in poor quality jobs in 2019, according to estimates by the International Labour Organisation. But in February this year, just as Modi’s chief political rival the INC was starting to steal the advantage on the economic front, the Pulwama terrorist attack, which killed 44 and injured 70 in Kashmir, injected a second major issue into the election campaign trail– security.

With the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claiming responsibility for the attack, Modi ordered a counter-attack in Balakot, within Pakistan territory, claiming to have struck a JeM facility there. Although later reports suggest that Indian forces may have missed their intended target, the political impact inside India was substantial.

Even before these Indian air strikes on Balakot, security was already a concern for 65% of people surveyed. Modi’s “surgical strikes” against Pakistan in retaliation for the terrorist attack in Kashmir suddenly reinforced his strongman image, with the prime minster promising that “each drop of tear will be avenged”.

Off the back of this Modi has cannily turned his re-election campaign into a referendum on himself, the self-styled “watchman” of India’s security.

“In the run-up to the election, Modi has painted Pakistan less as a strategic opponent and more as a threat to civilisation. He has played to nationalist sentiment, threatening to teach Pakistan a lesson,” says Fahd Humayun, a Pakistani researcher at the Jinnah Institute, public policy think-tank in Islamabad.

Some BJP activists have not been slow in acknowledging the political capital to be gained from Modi’s tough stance, with one declaring that the Balakot strike would “help us in winning more than 22 Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) seats”.

Although his comment was widely criticised, the polls seem to have borne the activist's prediction out. Last month, after compiling the latest data, the Indian polling agency CVoter seemed to confirm this, saying in a statement that “we have seen perhaps for the first time security issues competing with, and outdoing, a bread-and-butter issue like employment.”

While Modi’s sabre-rattling might have helped distract voters from India’s economic woes, it has also seriously jeopardised any attempts at peace-making between New Delhi and Islamabad. Meanwhile inside India itself, Modi’s nationalist cry also has a dark side, helping stoke raw Hindu nationalism, and the inevitable resulting tensions against Muslims.

This is nothing new, of course. Five years ago, Modi, the ex-chaiwallah – tea seller – and former chief minister of Gujarat, won his landslide victory with a campaign that crossed Hindu nationalism with the cult of a right-wing strongman. Since then his BJP has been spreading an us-versus-them philosophy in a country already riven by dangerous divisions.

Under Modi, the Hindu right has never been more enfranchised at every level of government. Should he be returned to office as the current polls suggest, many in India are convinced that a divisive Hindu-first agenda will only accelerate.

This despite the fact that India is a constitutionally multicultural country with the world’s second-largest population of Muslims, comprising over 170 million people.

In all, 20% of India’s 1.3 billion people are Muslim, Christian or another religion. Worryingly too is that under Modi’s administration, the country has also seen a startling rise of Hindu vigilante violence.

The attacks, often called “cow protection”, are sometimes deadly assaults that target Muslims and other Indians who, unlike Hindus, do not consider cows to be sacred. According to Human Rights Watch, Hindu militants killed at least 44 Indians and injured 280 in about 100 attacks between 2015 and 2018, and most of the dead were Muslims in states run by the BJP.

Muslim men who date Hindu women are another common target of vigilante violence, as well as anyone perceived to be publicly critical of Modi’s leadership.

Many Indian activists and liberal politicians now believe that under Modi their society has become more toxically divided between Hindus and Muslims, between upper and lower castes, and between men and women.

“In plain language, they are what we now call communal fascists,” said Aditya Mukherjee, a retired historian, referring to Modi and his political allies in an interview with the New York Times.

“This is something that Jawaharlal Nehru had predicted,” Mukherjee said, referring to India’s first prime minister.

“He said if fascism ever came to India it would come in the form of majoritarian Hindu communalism. That is exactly what is happening,” warned Mukherjee.

For the moment such concerns will matter little to Modi as he goes head to head with his main rivals the INC in this fiercely-contested ballot. The prime minister will take some solace from the fact that even if his own BJP has had a mixed record of late the INC has fared no better.

“It’s been a dark four-and-a-half years for India’s main opposition party,” noted Milan Vaishnav, the South Asia programme director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“After getting trounced in the 2014 general elections … the Congress headed into a protracted downward spiral,” observed Vaishnav last December.

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine he highlighted how the party controlled only three state governments compared with the BJP’s 20. He told of how “the heir to the once-storied Congress dynasty, Rahul Gandhi, became the butt of every Twitter meme and WhatsApp joke, an erratic dilettante whose gaffes were as frequent as his long, unexplained trips abroad.”

Critics of Rahul Gandhi say he is a man with little vision no matter how slick his party manifesto looks with its headline title promising to “deliver”.

They also point to the fact that the INC’s policies were, and are, a key factor in perpetuating India’s structural difficulties, such as the party’s protection of the agricultural sector, instead of being more business-friendly.

Certainly the latest polls do not bode well for the INC, pointing instead to the ruling BJP winning a second term even if the INC is expected to win more seats than it did in 2014.

Final results aside the election has also thrown up other issues that will trouble those marking the health of India’s giant democracy. Voter suppression especially has been a problem. According to Missing Voters, an app created in 2018, nearly 120 million eligible voters could be missing from voter lists, nearly 70 million of whom could be Muslims and Dalits. Suppression, say observers, appears to chiefly target Muslims and Dalits, the lowest group in the caste system.

Likewise, some 21 million eligible women could be disenfranchised as well. Then there are concerns over the role of both mainstream and social media.

Barely two weeks before the hotly-contested election began Indians across the country started reporting that a strange channel had suddenly appeared on their television screens.

NaMo TV, the new channel, appeared to be solely dedicated to the speeches of prime minister Modi, interrupted by special hour-long programming of the prime minister doing yoga. Enquiries by journalists about what was seen as a blatantly partisan channel resulted in India’s information and broadcasting ministry saying it was being aired without the necessary permissions, and they had no idea who was behind it.

According to the Indian journalist and filmmaker Mandakini Gahlot, while Modi’s party distanced itself from the controversy the channel remained on air, despite complaints that it not only flouted broadcast regulations, but violated the model code of conduct that regulates election campaigning in India.

“In my lifetime, I have only ever seen authoritarian leaders like Muammar Gaddafi or Kim Jong-un use such tricks,” said Gahlot in an article for Al Jazeera online about a film she was making investigating the threat posed to democracy in India by fake news and agitprop.

“In a country like India, where we have always prided ourselves on our hard-fought freedom to freely elect our government, this was unheard of,” Gahlot added, before describing how the BJP’s IT cell, a secretive body within the organisation solely dedicated to digital campaigning, stepped forward to admit that in fact it was running the channel.

In her investigative film, Gahlot revealed how India’s political parties have succeeded in profiling the country’s voters along caste, religion and socioeconomic status. “The data sets that have emerged from such profiling have been used to add people to different WhatsApp groups where they have been bombarded with misinformation over a span of years to ensure that their perception of reality is skewed beyond repair,” Gahot explains.

And so the battle for India’s voters seems to know no bounds or limitations with some 83 million of them first-time voters alone in this election.

Clearly the lengths to which India goes to reach voters in the remotest of regions is a reflection of its commitment to universal franchise. But alongside this remarkable physical process there are also many causes for concern over the way campaigning is conducted.

Indians have always taken their politics and elections seriously. Only last week a man chopped off his index finger in desperation after voting for the wrong party. Pawan Kumar became confused by the symbols on the electronic voting machine and voted for Modi’s party instead of its regional rival in Uttar Pradesh state.

There will perhaps be less confusion over the final results with many now predicting a Modi and BJP win. But experienced observers know that it can be a fool’s errand to make predictions about Indian elections. For now the herculean task of conducting this poll in the world’s largest democracy continues. What a fascinating if troubling process and spectacle it is.