India Election: Will Voters Choose Modi or Gandhi?

By Abhimanyu Kumar, Special to The Epoch Times
May 2, 2019 Updated: May 8, 2019

MATHURA/DELHI, India—As India moves toward the culmination of its six-week election process, the big question is whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi will win a second term, or will the scion of the Gandhi dynasty be the next to govern the world’s largest democratic country.

Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept into power in 2014 with a huge majority win. His main contender this time around is Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Congress Party and a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family that has occupied a prominent place in the politics of India since independence in 1947.

A polling booth on the outskirts of Mathura, India
A polling booth on the outskirts of Mathura, India, on April 18, 2019. (Abhimanyu Kumar for The Epoch Times)

There are seven phases of voting in the lead-up to the election on May 19, and so far, the turnout at the polls has been robust with people voting in sufficiently large numbers.

In Mathura, a temple town connected to Delhi via a swanky expressway, many who voted in the second phase expressed their preference for Modi. But their praise was not unconditional; most people who spoke to The Epoch Times had some grievance or other, or they accepted criticism of the government, but still favored Modi and his right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP.

“The BJP is in a good position here,” said Shamsher Singh, 73, a retired schoolteacher who had just cast his vote.

Mathura is in the constituency of Hema Malini, a former movie star who is a member of Parliament with the BJP. Before the polling in Mathura, videos of Malini on a tractor in a field while draped in an expensive sari began doing the rounds on social media, where she was mocked for “pretending” to do farm work.

India election
Shamsher Singh is unhappy with Modi government’s policies but still wants Modi as the prime minister. (Abhimanyu Kumar for The Epoch Times)

“Our vote is not for Hema Malini but for Modi,” said retired policeman Digambar Singh when asked about Malini’s performance as an MP over the last five years.

Although Shamsher Singh is unhappy about his pension getting reduced under the Modi government, he said he has no confidence in Gandhi’s ability to lead the country. Also, he believes Modi has burnished India’s credentials on the world stage with his “decisive leadership.”

Four phases of voting have taken place so far and 373 out of a total 543 seats have gone to the polls in 24 states.

On May 12, it’ll be New Delhi’s turn. Kasim Raza, 48, a resident of the capital city who works for an NGO, said Gandhi is his choice for the country’s next prime minister.

“He is able to treat everyone the same. Even if you’re unkind to him, he will treat you with love. He is an inherently democratic person. This is his heritage that he has received being a scion of the Gandhi-Nehru family,” he said.

As for Modi, Raza said he talks a lot and doesn’t achieve much. “All he did in his five-year term was to abuse [former prime ministers] Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Now he is using the army for votes,” he said.

Divided Opposition

One thing that currently benefits the BJP is that the Official Opposition is divided. Instead of rallying behind the Congress Party and Gandhi, other regional parties that command a substantial number of seats in their respective areas have chosen to contest on their own.

But Gandhi told NDTV on May 2 that his party has done well in the voting so far and that people are losing faith in Modi, who he said refuses to discuss pressing issues like unemployment, the economy, and distress among farmers.

“There is massive unemployment in the country, massive farmer disenchantment, farmer suicides in the country,” he said. “The primary issue in Indian elections is jobs, jobs, jobs, and jobs, and the economy. It’s a pity the Prime Minister can’t talk about these issues. We have boxed him in and he can’t talk.”

India elections
A man checks for his name in the voters’ list next to a polling booth in Mathura, India, on April 18, 2019. (Abhimanyu Kumar for The Epoch Times)

Having lost three important state elections in December 2018, the BJP seemed to be heading for troubled waters when its prospects received a boost after the attack in February on a security convoy in Pulwama, the India-administered part of Kashmir. The attack, which killed 44 Indian soldiers, brought nationalism into the national discourse once again—a topic that well suits Modi and the BJP.

Since then, the BJP has tried to keep up the momentum, bolstered by another “surgical strike” within Pakistani territory to avenge the Pulwama attack—although the opposition has decried the lack of credible information regarding that operation. The BJP has tried to put the opposition on the defensive by accusing it of lacking patriotism in questioning the competence of the armed forces.

In a few weeks’ time, it will be known whether BJP’s hardline nationalism worked in its favor. Until then, the heat and dust of the world’s largest democratic elections will overshadow all else.