An hour after sunrise in India on Thursday, the world's largest exercise of democracy got underway. That's when polls opened on the first day of voting in Indian elections.
A nationwide election in India is a massive undertaking — with a population of 1.3 billion and nearly 900 million eligible voters. This year, there are 543 parliamentary seats up for grabs, including that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who's running for a second term.
Balloting is no single-day affair. Poll workers must reach voters from the Himalayas to tropical islands in the Indian Ocean. So voting is done in seven stages, over more than five weeks — through May 19. Then votes will be counted on May 23.
Who is running?
Modi is the front-runner. He and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are running for another five-year term. The BJP is a Hindu nationalist party that's brought India's majority Hindu faith into politics and public life in unprecedented ways. Under the BJP, many Indian states have banned beef, because cows are sacred to Hindus. They've revised school textbooks and changed the names of Indian cities with Muslim-sounding names. Modi has campaigned as a pro-business, anti-corruption candidate, and he sought to portray himself as a safe pair of hands during recent violence with neighboring Pakistan.
Modi's main challenger is India's main opposition party, the Congress party, and its leader Rahul Gandhi (no relation to India's freedom leader Mahatma Gandhi). Congress is a secular, socialist party that has pledged to protect India's minorities and improve life for the poor. It's a dynastic party; Gandhi's great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was India's first prime minister. The party has been run by his descendants ever since, and it has dominated Indian politics until only recently.
If Modi wins and serves a full second term, it would be the longest stretch of non-Congress rule since India's independence from Britain in 1947.
What are the issues?
Many voters see this election as a referendum on Modi's past five years in office. India's economy is one of the fastest-growing in the world. But unemployment has hit a four-decade high. Crop prices are low, which means food is cheap. But it also means farmers' profits are meager, and they've been protesting in the streets. Voters also care about national security, after India and its archrival Pakistan — both nuclear powers — exchanged airstrikes this winter.
How does voting work?
Indian law says no one should have to travel more than 2 kilometers (about 1.25 miles) to vote. So poll workers have fanned out across the country, setting up polling stations wherever there's even a tiny settlement. They trek through the jungle to bring voting machines to a man who lives alone in a lion-infested forest in the western state of Gujarat, and climb to nearly 15,000 feet above sea level to set up a polling station for 12 residents of a village in the northern province of Leh.
All voting is done by electronic voting machine, or EVM. The tabletop machine looks like a miniature piano keyboard, with buttons next to a list of political parties and also symbols — for those voters who might not be able to read. The machines fit into small suitcases, which poll workers have carried across glaciers and through deserts — even hoisting them overhead as they ford rivers to reach voters. Some poll workers have to take helicopters to reach remote settlements of voters.
By the numbers
1 in 8: Proportion of human beings eligible to vote in Indian elections
543: Seats at stake in the lower house of India's parliament
272: Seats any party needs, outright or by coalition, to form a government and choose India's next prime minister
2,293: Political parties, national and local, contesting Indian elections
8,000+: Candidates running for Indian parliament
2: Anglo-Indian seats in India's parliament. Those are seats reserved for members of the British community who stayed behind in India after the end of colonial rule.
1 million: Polling stations set up across India
11 million: Government employees deployed to oversee Indian voting
3.9 million: Electronic voting machines (EVMs) in use
1991: Year EVMs were introduced in India
At least $345 million: Value of cash, drugs, alcohol and goods confiscated so far from politicians attempting to bribe voters with gifts
15,256: Feet in elevation above sea level of India's highest-altitude polling station in Tashigang, a Buddhist settlement near the Chinese border
66 percent: Voter turnout for the last Indian elections, in 2014
$5 billion: Cost of 2014 elections; this year is expected to exceed that
300 million: Estimated number of Indians on Facebook. This is the social media site's largest market. The Indian government has expressed concern that fake news, spread on Facebook and the phone messaging app WhatsApp, could sway voters. Facebook says some 40 million rupees (half a million dollars) has been spent on political ads in India so far.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Voting is getting started today in the largest general election the world has ever seen. India is home to 900 million eligible voters, and polls there are opening this morning. Because of the vastness of the country and with so many people to reach, this election is going to be carried out in several stages, meaning it will be weeks before votes are in and counting can actually begin. More than 500 parliamentary seats are up for grabs here, and that includes that of incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is running for a second term. NPR's Lauren Frayer is at a polling station in northern India.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi there.
GREENE: So where exactly are you, and what's the atmosphere like?
FRAYER: I'm in a courtyard of a school that's being used as a polling station a couple hundred yards from the Ganges River. And people are streaming out of the school here after voting, with ink on their fingers that signifies they have voted. And this is one of one million polling stations across this country. And when I say polling station, sometimes it's just, like, a handful of people with an electronic voting machine. The rules say that no Indian voter should have to travel more than 2 kilometers. So that's less than a mile and a half to vote.
And so election officials have trekked across glaciers, through jungles, to get this voting infrastructure out to every last citizen. Now, it's all electronic voting on machines, machines that sort of fit in a small suitcase. And we've seen these election commission workers, you know, wading across rivers with these machines overhead to get in place for this polling.
GREENE: God. Those are some incredible scenes you're describing. As you've been talking to voters, I mean, what have you been learning, and does it sort of give us a sense from afar of what this election is about and what people are finding important?
FRAYER: So it's really a sort of a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. He was elected five years ago, 2014, with this historic majority. He made a lot of promises. People are evaluating his performance. The Indian economy is booming, but unemployment has also hit a four-decade high. Crop prices are low. That means food is cheap. That's good. But farmers are struggling. Their profits are low.
Where I am, in Haridwar, this is a place where Modi's party has done really well before. This is sort of the Hindi heartland, Modi's base. And earlier, I met a couple of elderly gentlemen, retirees, hanging out on the banks of the Ganges River talking about Prime Minister Modi.
SHASHI PRAKASH SHARMA: He's doing his best for the country.
FRAYER: And you think five more years?
SHARMA: Yes. I want. Belongs to a poor family.
MOHAN LAL: We like him as a person. Policies? We are not directly into politics. We are normal people.
FRAYER: So that was Shashi Prakash Sharma and Mohan Lal, and they say they like Modi, the man, you know, the former tea seller. For them, his policies are really secondary, except for national security. And that's something that comes up a lot talking to voters. Violence broke out this winter between India and its neighbor, Pakistan. Airstrikes. Both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. And so during all of that, Modi cast himself, really, as this safe pair of hands to care for the country.
GREENE: All right. Setting up the election in India, a massive election, 900 million eligible voters. It's going to take a while before we can actually figure out who won and whether Narendra Modi gets another term. NPR's Lauren Frayer covering it for us this morning.
Lauren, thanks a lot.
FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.