Elections in India draw to a close amid bitter political rhetoric

Voters in India cast their ballots in the seventh and last phase of elections to choose a new government in New Delhi. This year’s polls witnessed a massive decline in the standard of campaigning by political parties.

Elections for the final phase of the parliamentary or Lok Sabha elections drew to a close on Sunday as voters cast their ballots for 59 seats spread over seven states. Voting was also ongoing in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency, Varanasi, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

Around 40% of voters had cast their ballots by 1 p.m. Indian Standard Time (0730 UTC), according to Indian news agency ANI. Exit polls were expected later on Sunday, although most surveys in the past have been inaccurate in predicting the final winners.  

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Loyalties drawn on religious lines

This year's election witnessed campaigns and slogans which seriously challenged the country's inclusive political culture. Several top politicians were banned from campaigning for several days because of religious attacks and spiteful counter-attacks.

In Uttar Pradesh, which is the most populous state with 200 million people and thus very important for parties looking to win the national elections, witnessed severe verbal duels between electoral candidates. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath announced to a crowd that if the ruling Bharatiya Janata party's (BJP) opponents had "faith in Ali (the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad)," his followers "had faith in (the Hindu god) Bajrang Bali." His comments were a reaction to a speech by his competitor Mayawati of the local Bahujan Samaj Party, who had urged "especially Muslims" not to split their anti-BJP votes among different parties. Both were banned from campaigning for a few days.

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Maneka Gandhi, a federal minister in Modi's cabinet was also banned for two days after video footage showed her warning Muslims not to vote against her and that if she won office without their votes, she would think twice before helping them out.

The president of the BJP, Amit Shah, who is close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, told a rally in Assam state in April that if re-elected, the BJP would rid India of unauthorized migrants other than Hindus and Sikhs. The speech was seen as targeting illegal Muslim immigrants, mostly from Bangladesh.

"It is clear the BJP is trying to secure an electoral victory not by convincing Indians that it will implement a strong social, economic and political agenda, but by fomenting the Hindu majority's prejudices against Muslims and convincing them to vote along religious lines," political analyst Ajay Kumar Jha told DW.

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Gandhi's assassin a 'patriot'

Prime Minister Modi and his competitor from the opposition party, the Indian National Congress (INC), Rahul Gandhi, also had a public argument after Modi accused Gandhi's father, former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, of beginning as "Mr. Clean" but finishing as India's "Corrupt number one." Rahul Gandhi in turn, accused Modi of being a thief following accusations that the BJP government had used corrupt practices in securing the Rafale fighter jet deal with French company Dassault.

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Campaigning sunk to a new low when the BJP's candidate in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, Pragya Thakur, stirred a controversy when she said that Nathuram Godse, the man who killed Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, was a patriot. Thakur, also known as "sage" or "Sadhvi," is an accused in a 2008 bomb blast in the western Indian city of Malegaon.

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Speaking at a campaign rally in Madhya Pradesh, Thakur said, "Nathuram Godse was a patriot, is a patriot, and will remain a patriot. Those who call him a terrorist should look within; they will get a reply in the election."

Speaking to DW, political commentator Hartosh Singh Bal said that these statements were proof that the BJP was seeking votes by doing what it did best: "raising and stoking fear among the Hindu majority of the potential dangers posed by the presence of a large Muslim minority in India."

The Election Commission's ineffective monitoring

Meanwhile, India's Election Commission (EC) has struggled to act against candidates who violated the vote's code of conduct, which includes avoiding religious and communal rhetoric.

Earlier this week, Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa stopped attending after he felt that his decisions were being disregarded. "Minority decisions recorded by me in several cases continue to be suppressed in a manner contrary to well-established conventions observed by multi-member statutory bodies," Lavasa wrote to the Chief Election Commissioner. 

The EC also ended campaigning by political parties a day earlier in West Bengal after members of the BJP and protesters belonging to the regional Trinamool Congress (TMC) clashed in Kolkata, destroying the statue of a centuries-old reformer in Bengal.

India's election – the world's largest

'Carnival-style' celebrations

Supporters of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi danced, sang and rejoiced as celebrations erupted throughout India over his thumping victory in the country's general elections. There were media reports mentioning 'carnival-style' celebrations outside the BJP's headquarters in New Delhi.

India's election – the world's largest

A new era?

According to early results, the BJP won at least 272 of the seats needed for a parliamentary majority, while the ruling Congress party was headed for its worst-ever defeat. If confirmed, this would be the first parliamentary majority by a single party in 30 years. India's triumphant Hindu nationalists lead by Modi (seen here) declared "a new era" in the world's biggest democracy.

India's election – the world's largest

A mammoth election

The biggest election in history got underway on April 7. The vote to elect the representatives to the 545-member lower house of the Indian parliament took place in nine phases staggered over five weeks. A record of more than 500 million ballots were cast from the Himalayas in the north to the tropical south, with voters braving blistering heat for a record 66 percent turnout.

India's election – the world's largest

Main competitors

The ruling Congress party-led UPA coalition - which had been in power for the past ten years - and the opposition BJP-led NDA bloc were the two major political alliances competing. The BJP had declared Modi, the 63-year-old chief minister of the state of Gujarat, its prime ministerial candidate. After the BJP victory, Modi is now set to become India's next PM.

India's election – the world's largest

Rahul Gandhi

Modi's chief rival was Rahul Gandhi, the 43-year-old vice president of the Congress party and scion of the Gandhi family. But opinion polls had already shown voters had turned against the party due to several corruption scandals, inflation and economic slowdown. Both Rahul and his mother, Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi, admitted personal responsibility for the poor election results.

India's election – the world's largest

The 'Common Man Party'

The recently formed Aam Aadmi party (AAP), which ran on an anti-corruption plank, had become a major force in Indian politics. The AAP, led by Arvind Kejriwal, had made a surprisingly strong debut in its first electoral outing in Delhi's regional poll last year. Although there were similar expectations at the national level, the party took a drubbing at the polls this time around.

India's election – the world's largest

Regional outfits

There were also a string of regional parties and leaders hoping to play a major role on the national stage. Some of these outfits had joined hands to form the "Third Front," aiming to offer voters an alternative to the established parties. But if, as expected, Modi's BJP wins the 272-seat majority needed to create a government, it won't need to form a coalition with smaller parties.

India's election – the world's largest

It's the economy

India is home to a third of the world's poor while being the 10th-biggest economy globally. Surveys showed voters were fed up with corruption and worried about jobs and price rises. Modi and the BJP went into the election with strong momentum on promises of economic expansion, pointing to the 'Gujarat model' which Modi is said to have facilitated during his tenure as the state's chief minister.

India's election – the world's largest

Sporadic violence

Polling was by and large peaceful, but on March 11, Maoist rebels opposed to the elections killed at least seven police officers in an attack in the central state of Chhattisgarh. Violence also flared in Indian-controlled Kashmir on the penultimate day of voting, with an explosion in a polling booth injuring a soldier. Three other troops were wounded when suspected militants fired at them.

India's election – the world's largest

Fears about religious harmony

The Congress Party had pointed towards Modi's alleged role during the 2002 Gujarat communal riots. Gandhi had criticized the Gujarat government for "abetting the riots," although courts in India had cleared Modi of any wrongdoing. Congress had repeatedly warned the country could see violence between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority, if the BJP took power.

India's election – the world's largest

Voting ends

On May 12, the final polling day, there were 41 seats up for grabs in three states. But all eyes were set on the constituency of Varanasi where Narendra Modi sought a personal mandate. Modi, the first prime ministerial candidate to stand and win in the Hindu holy city, had been challenged by AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal, among others.

India's election – the world's largest

Many challenges ahead

The prime minister-in-waiting faces challenges on several fronts as expectations on a BJP-led government are high. Among those are tackling the rampant corruption in the country, reviving economic growth, creating new jobs for India's youth, reforming the tax system and reducing the growing gap between rich and poor.

However, the BJP's opponents saw the ban as favoring Prime Minister Modi's campaign rallies.  "This order was aimed solely at giving a free pass to the PM's rallies," Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala told DW, questioning whether the MCC (Model Code of Conduct) had become "Modi Code of Misconduct."

Political analysts believe that the Election Commissions inefficacy in handling parties' misconduct could help some political sections, but it was still difficult to predict the winner. "If patriotic fervor benefits incumbent leaders, the prime minister is certainly well placed. But having travelled around the country this time, I can tell you that anyone who predicts a number with any certainty is a charlatan," Ruchir Sharma, author of Democracy on the Road: A 25-Year Journey Through India told DW.

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