The world’s biggest democracy, by the numbers:
900 million: the number of eligible voters.
2,000: registered political parties.
11 million: poll workers tending 2.3 million electronic voting machines, with ballots delivered by many methods, including boats, helicopters, trains and, this being India, elephants.
Five weeks: The span of the voting, which began on Thursday. (The campaign, of course, was much longer.) Results will be announced May 23.
Two: Despite the incredible complexity of India’s election, it essentially is a binary choice between the two leading candidates for prime minister: Narendra Modi, the incumbent, and Rahul Gandhi, the top challenger.
One: Globally, this election sends a singular signal that democracy is still viable in an increasingly authoritarian world.
The Indian national election “comes at a time when democracy is under stress, and this is the single biggest exercise of whether it is dynamic in the largest electorate in the world,” said Devesh Kapur, director of South Asia Programs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Kapur — who originally came to America on a University of Minnesota scholarship — added that despite the geopolitical significance, the vote’s import is still India-centric. “Some people argue that what is at stake is the very future of what India means,” Kapur said. “Because there’s a big shift between the early decades of India, which had a strongly secular conception of what India is and what its future will be.”
That strong, secular conception was often led by Rahul Gandhi’s family, including his father, grandmother and great-grandfather, who were all previous prime ministers.
Modi doesn’t come from a dynasty, but his dynamism on the campaign trail helped lead the center-right, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to victory in 2014, and is among the reasons why the BJP is favored to win again.
Modi’s martial response to an attack on Indian paramilitary forces by a Pakistani-based terrorist group also burnished his election credentials, according to most polls. And it showed what’s at stake regarding regional relations, as the two South Asian nations came closer to their fifth war since independence in 1947. Only now, nuclear weapons are in each nation’s arsenal, and unless the countries can come to some kind of accord over India-administered Kashmir, which is also claimed by Pakistan, a military miscalculation could cause a catastrophe.
“These two countries had become gripped in an unsustainable cycle in which Pakistan backed various terrorist and military groups to launch attacks in Kashmir, and India, in my opinion, showed remarkable restraint for many years,” Jeff Smith, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who specializes in South Asia, told me last month.
Because Modi is such an outsized presence, there’s been a bit of a reversal from historical norms. Now it’s the BJP that seems more of an individually driven party, while the center-left Congress party, led by a more reticent Rahul Gandhi, seems more collective this election.
Like nearly everywhere, jobs are a particularly important issue, despite the growing economy in teeming cities.
Out in the countryside, rural voters, who are still the majority despite decades of urbanization, are key, too. They strongly supported the BJP in 2014, but many farmers are still struggling and may turn toward Congress.
The urban/rural split is just one divide to be factored into India’s complex society and election. But this economic/geographic/sectarian/cultural/caste kaleidoscope keeps India from merely dividing on a Hindu-Muslim axis. So while a majority of Hindus have expressed support for Modi and Muslims have generally favored Gandhi, the vote, just like India’s people, is not monolithic.
“When society has only one of these cleavages, things can get dangerous,” Kapur said. “But when a society has multiple cleavages, then it’s like a Rubik’s Cube — you change one direction, you get a different color.”
Adding to this Rubik’s Cube is the newer rubric of social media. As with everything else in India, the scope is enormous: There are more Facebook users in the country than anywhere else in the world, and the use of other social media and texting platforms is high, too.
So is the impact: Disinformation and outright fake news on Facebook and other sites have swamped India in advance of the election. Posts in multiple languages — and sometimes in wordless, photoshopped images meant to inflame — have engulfed Indian society and threaten to subvert its election.
“ ‘Fake news’ is a big challenge to the electoral process in India, as there is no Indian law that specifically targets disinformation,” Kanishk Karan, a research associate with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said in an e-mail exchange. Writing from New Dehli, Karan added that “social media platforms open opportunities for malicious actors to spread disinformation in masses without leaving any footprints.”
The response from Indian authorities and the social sites themselves hasn’t been commensurate to the scope of the challenge. “The measures by the Election Commission of India, political parties and social media companies are failing the voters of India. We have witnessed perpetual cycles of misinformation and propaganda intensify as per media reports,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation. Writing from New Delhi, Gupta said that the IFF has joined other organizations to call on the Electoral Commission to take immediate steps.
The impact of this dynamic is uncertain. “What is the relative effect of this compared to 20 other factors?” Kapur rhetorically asked. “Will it have a 1 percent marginal effect on the vote or 10 percent?”
Whatever the percent affected, fake news on Facebook is insidious in India and worldwide. “A free and fair election is the foundation of any democracy,” Kapur said. “Disinformation threatens democracy and efficient governance, not only in India but around the world.”
Overall, qualitative, not quantitative metrics may matter most. Because a successful election in the subcontinent’s most consequential country — which will soon be the most populous nation in the world — can be a beacon to other nations that are turning from the messy necessities of democracy.
“One out of four voters in the world is Indian. The fact that in a lower-income country which is so heterogeneous, that it still works and the loser comes back and tries again, that is what the voters’ exercise, what democracy is all about,” Kapur said. “A well-conducted election, irrespective of the outcome, in and of itself is important.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.