India’s elections begin with multiple challenges ahead

India's general election will see voters decide whether incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the Bharatiya Janata Party can secure a third term in office.

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People queue to cast their votes at a polling station during the first phase of India's general elections in Nagaon district of India's northeastern state of Assam, April 19, 2024. (Str/Xinhua)

India’s parliamentary elections kicked off on Friday, with eligible voters in the country deciding whether incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi can secure a third term.

Despite India’s economic growth under Modi’s leadership in the past decade, the path driven by nationalism sentiment seems unsustainable as, according to analysts, the unemployment rate in India is skyrocketing, and nationalism and extreme religious sentiment are further challenging domestic cohesion and foreign investment.

NO CLIFFHANGER?

Voters are expected to cast their ballots at polling stations across India from Friday to June 1 in seven phases to elect lawmakers to the lower house of the parliament, the Lok Sabha, or House of the People.

Modi of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) vowed to win over 400 seats for the ruling coalition, known as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Around two dozen opposition parties, led by the main opposition Congress party, formed the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) to challenge the NDA.

Pre-poll surveys showed that the NDA is prevailing in the contests. According to an India TV-CNX opinion poll earlier this month, the BJP could win more than 340 seats, and the ruling coalition is projected to secure 399 seats. Another opinion poll by News 18 showed last month that the ruling NDA would win 411 seats while the INDIA would win only 105 seats.

Lin Minwang, deputy director of the Center for South Asian Studies at Fudan University, said there is little hope for a cliffhanger during the 44-day elections. He added that the focal point of the elections now is whether Modi can achieve his target of 370 seats.

“In the past few years, India’s Hindu nationalists have continuously propagated that the Muslim population accounting for 14 percent of India’s population poses a severe threat to the safety of the Hindu population, some of 80 percent of the country’s population. Under the ‘protection’ of Modi, Hindus and Hinduism have been safeguarded. Therefore, Modi enjoys high political support domestically for his ‘protector of Hinduism’ image,” Lin told Xinhua in a recent interview.

The ruling BJP implements “new welfarism” characterized by subsidized essential services and a digital infrastructure facilitating direct cash transfers to voters. Consequently, voters are likely to consider the continuation of such welfare initiatives as significant factors in their electoral decisions, said Yasiru Ranaraja, co-founder and director of Belt and Road Initiative Sri Lanka, a Colombo-based consulting platform.

The only other party with nationwide influence is the Congress party, which is the primary contender against the BJP. However, the party faced substantial defeats in the 2014 and 2019 elections. Mallikarjun Kharge and Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party are the primary challengers to Modi.

Mujibur Rehman, a professor at the Center for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy of the Jamia Millia Islamia, a university in New Delhi, told Xinhua that the opposition is weak.

“The opposition leaders have not been able to touch the right chord by reaching out with their clear messages or slogans right up to the grassroots. An average Indian fails to identify, or understand, the slogans given by them like ‘Democracy is in Danger.’ An average person has to first take care of his basic needs of life, than thinking about such slogans,” said Rehman.

Additionally, several opposition leaders have been imprisoned, questioned or had cases filed against them by federal agencies in the past year, which triggered protests from opposition parties and civic groups.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

Modi’s BJP on Sunday released its election manifesto, “Modi’s Guarantee.” The manifesto promises to create jobs, boost infrastructure and expand welfare programs. It also proposes an ambitious vision for the country to become a “developed nation” by 2047.

Economic development has been a significant achievement in the past decade. India is now the fifth-largest economy globally, a notable progression from the tenth when Modi entered office in 2014.

Despite robust economic growth, India’s unemployment rate is alarmingly high. Youth unemployment, particularly among those aged 20 to 24, remained high at 44.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2023.

The agricultural sector, upon which over 40 percent of India’s population depends for their livelihood, presents another formidable challenge. Farmers grapple with mounting debt and stagnant incomes, which has led to widespread protests against the government and demands for minimum income guarantees and agricultural reforms.

“They are not new issues. None of the parties, neither the Congress party nor the BJP, or other parties, have been able to deliver on these issues effectively,” said Rehman.

India’s economic growth has been driven mainly by high-growth industries such as finance, insurance, real estate and business process outsourcing, which expand social inequality with people in the lower socio-economic class increasingly left behind.

Meanwhile, attracting foreign investment remains another big issue for a new government even after a decade-long reform during Modi’s 10-year tenure.

“As a rapidly growing market, India is attractive to multinational corporations. However, the Indian market is also fraught with numerous uncertainties, posing various risks and challenges to foreign investment,” said Lin.

“The protectionist tendencies in India’s domestic trade are becoming increasingly pronounced, with the government taking measures that contradict market economic principles, becoming a major concern for many foreign investors looking to invest in India,” he added.

Analysts also highlighted domestic cohesion. Ranaraja said that while nationalist policies may rally some segments of the population, they also raise concerns about its long-term implications for national unity, particularly among southern Indian states and the Muslim community.

Xinhua News Agency

Founded in 1931, Xinhua News Agency is one of the largest news organizations in the world, with over 10,000 employees across the globe. As the main source of news and information for China, Xinhua plays a key role in shaping the country's media landscape and communicating its perspectives to the world. The agency produces a wide range of content, including text news articles, photos, videos, and social media posts, in both Chinese and English, and its reports are widely used by media organizations around the world. Xinhua also operates several international bureaus, including in key capitals like Washington, D.C., Moscow, and London, to provide in-depth coverage of global events.

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