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Will Growing Dissatisfaction in India Unseat PM Modi in India Election?

As India heads to the polls in a month-long voting period, national security, the economy and women’s rights take center stage.

With 900 million eligible voters, India’s election will be the biggest democratic election in history. Incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a dominant victory in India’s last election in 2014. This year, the BJP will be facing strong competition from the Indian National Congress (INC) party, led by Rahul Gandhi, whose great grandfather, grandmother and father were all prime ministers.

Composed of 29 states and 543 elected seats, India is more “like the European Union than any single European state,” according to the Guardian’s Ruchir Sharma. Because the country is so diverse, Modi was able to gain a majority of seats in 2014 with only 31 percent of the national vote.

Because of the raw scale of the election, voting will span over five weeks from April 11 to May 19. April 11, the first day of voting, saw a voter turnout of more than 60 percent, according to the Election Commission.

Ongoing economic problems have diminished the popularity of the charismatic Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and 70 percent of Indians expressed approval with how things were going in 2017. The most recent Pew survey, however, found that the ratio of satisfied Indians has dropped to 55 percent.

Economic and Agricultural Crisis

At least 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since 1995. Over half of India’s population works on farms, and the ongoing strife of the socioeconomic underclass is a major focus of the upcoming election. Farmers overwhelmingly supported the BJP in 2014, as the party pledged to waive debts and take other measures to support struggling agriculture workers.

“We voted for the BJP but anti-farmer policies of the government have hit us hard,” Lakhan Pal Singh, a farmer participating in a march containing over 10,000 people, told Reuters. India began to liberalize its economy in the 1990s, reducing its role in the agricultural sector while welcoming foreign investment. The new policies have benefited much of India’s middle and upper classes, but the lower class has suffered.

According to Devinder Sharma, known as India’s “Green Chomsky,” the blame for the agricultural crisis lies with the government:

“Policy design is what has led to this crisis, because the successive governments have been advised by the World Bank to take 400 million people out of the rural areas to urban areas [to provide labor to industries]. But governments cannot actually force people out. They are, therefore, creating economic conditions that push farmers to abandon agriculture and relocate for survival to the urban areas. No less than Raghuram Rajan, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, had said that the biggest reform would be to move people out of agriculture into urban areas, because the market there needs cheap labor… the mega problem is that this is happening all over the world.”

The agricultural crisis has also contributed to rapid urbanization. According to award-winning journalist G. Sainath, Indian men have migrated to urban locations to find employment, while women have taken the burden of the ailing agricultural sector:

“The men are going first, and in larger numbers. And the roles that men were doing in agriculture are now sitting on women’s shoulders. Displacement affects women the most. Every chore doubles in intensity. You have to walk longer distances for water, and there is no water resource not already being used by another community, so they also face the hostility of that community.”

Sharma claims that the government has intentionally repressed data on suicides from the agricultural crisis. Similarly, a leaked government report revealed unemployment to be at its worst rate since the 1970s, despite lofty promises by Modi to create jobs in 2014. Over half of India’s 1.3 billion population is under 25, and the BJP’s failure to create jobs for the youth could impact the elections.

Numerous farmer strikes have occurred in the past few years, with 2016 seeing the largest strike in human history (180 million people). Modi has sought to weaken trade union laws and diminish the right to strike to the point that Tapan Sen, the leader of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), said would lead to the enslavement of Indian workers.

Foreign direct investment into India has risen from less than $25 billion in 2014 — before the BJP took power — to around $45 billion in the last fiscal year. The Indian economy is one of the fastest growing in the world and has maintained steady growth throughout Modi’s tenure, but voters cite economic issues among their top concerns.

National Security

Despite Modi’s promise to improve safety for women in 2014, India was ranked by Reuters in 2018 as the most dangerous place in the world for women, with an average of four rapes reported every hour in the country. A larger percentage of women voted in 16 out of 29 states in India’s last election, and their worsening conditions could change the outcome of the elections.

A Pakistani terrorist group killed 40 Indian police in Kashmir in February, to which Prime Minister Modi retaliated with unprecedented air strikes in Pakistan. Prime Minister Modi also boasted of the destruction of a satellite in a missile test in March, declaring India a space power as other countries condemned the move as reckless. Analysts view Modi’s strongman military posturing as a technique to shore up nationalist support for the election and shift attention away from the economy.

Tensions between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority are also a growing concern in India, with the rate of communal violence raising 28 percent between 2014 and 2017. India’s former foreign minister Salman Khurshid told the New Yorker: “It’a really a very, very bad moment for Muslims in India.”

In 2002, when Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, more than 1,000 people were killed in anti-Muslim riots in the state. Modi has been accused of allowing the violence, which he has vehemently denied.

Global Impact of India Election

One in six people in the world are Indian, and as the largest democracy and sixth biggest economy in the world, India’s elections hold serious global significance.

India is the world’s greatest importer of weapons, and Prime Minister Modi’s hawkish stance on Pakistan (both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers) has major ramifications for geopolitical security.

Despite polls indicating the BJP’s favorable position, the incumbent has lost two out of every three state and national elections in India since the 1970s, and a shift in the country’s politics is very possible.

Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a co-owner Citizen Truth.

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