MEERUT, Uttar Pradesh — Nine hundred million people, just shy of the combined populations of Europe and America, will have the chance to vote as Indians line up to decide who will lead the country for the next five years.
The phased polls begin on April 11 and will continue for a month in different parts of the country. The results are expected on May 23.
Five years after Narendra Modi and his right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) swept to power, the country appears at a crossroads: Indian society is fractured along the lines of caste and religion, the economy is still recovering from a series of ill-considered shock measures, and unemployment is rampant.
Yet many still expect Modi and the BJP to hang on to power, largely due to an opposition that has struggled to counter the current government's potent brew of toxic religious nationalism, a supine press that actively sides with the government on most issues, and the ruling party's vast online army of trolls that spread government propaganda and intimidate critics.
Despite this, the government was struggling earlier this year, right up to 14 February when a suicide bomber killed over 40 paramilitary troopers by driving a van-laden with explosives into a troop convoy. A brief military skirmish with Pakistan followed, ensuring that national security dominated the headlines for the next several weeks.
"This is not a real election. It is a virtual election being fought on the imaginary issues of national security," said Shiv Visvanathan, a social anthropologist and professor at O.P. Jindal Global University. "It is a total invention."
If the 2014 elections were about hope for India's vast swathes of unemployed youth, the 2019 elections are about fear.
"This election has become a patriotic election," Visvanathan said. "Development was round one. Patriotism is round two."
This is not a real election. It is a virtual election being fought on the imaginary issues of national security.
Rashmi Jain, a 40-year-old homemaker in Meerut, a northern Indian city with a history of communal violence, said she saw no alternative to Modi.
"After the attack in Kashmir, Modi took action. That is how it should be," she said. "He has a great personality. He has put India on the map. The leader of countries like Japan, America and Indonesia support him. They want to work with him."
The world's largest election is a referendum on one man.
As she turned to look at television screen, which showed Modi raising his arms while giving an election speech in his home state of Gujarat, Jain said, "He has a vision. He doesn't think short-term, but long term, even if it means getting a lot of criticism. Is this not enough for anyone to want to vote for him?"
He has a great personality. He has put India on the map.
Visvanathan noted there was a difference between the Modi who ran in 2014, and the man who is contesting the election now. "Modi is not an aspiring character anymore. Aspiration has moved to permanence. Modi wants to be a legend."
Yet Sudha Pai, a political science professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, cautioned that the outcome of the election was not a foregone conclusion.
"We still have to see whether people are sold on national security and all this 'we have to be a great nation.'" she said. "We still have to see whether the election is going to be about the economy or national security."
Modi is not an aspiring character anymore. Modi wants to be a legend.
Guns, Butter And Fake News
In 2014, Modi and the BJP swept to power on the promise of delivering jobs to India's legion of unemployed youth. Over 1 million young Indians enter the job market every month, by some estimates, and the economy does not produce nearly enough jobs.
Five years down the line, the government has clearly failed to deliver.
Recently, 93,000 candidates, including several with Phds and post graduates, applied for 62 posts to be police messengers - a job that requires the applicant to have passed the fifth grade. A leaked jobs report, that the government tried to suppress, estimated that unemployment was at a 45 year high.
Some of the government's wounds have been self-inflicted. In November 2016, Modi took the unilateral and ill-advised decision to remove 85% of India's cash in circulation by "demonetizing" high-value currency notes. The move, justified as a way to eliminate hoards to undeclared wealth, triggered a slump that the economy is yet to recover from.
Yet so strong is Modi's grasp on the public imagination, that many voters say they will vote for him anyway.
Yashpal Saxena, a voter in Delhi, toldHuffPost India that demonetization had ruined his small business, making parts for electrical appliances, but he still feels there is no one other than Modi who is capable of leading the country.
Saxena has heard that Modi is thick friends with Donald Trump and has some sway over the president of the United States. This leads him to believe that Modi has a standing among world leaders.
One big reason for Saxena's beliefs is the BJP's digital army of fake news peddlers who lose no opportunity to stretch the truth to serve their leader's ends.
Saxena knows that everything he reads and hears about Modi — on TV and Facebook — is not true, but the 60-year-old electrician says there is nothing he can do to counter misinformation.
"I don't know whether Trump listens to him or not. What choice do I have but to trust the media? I cannot go to America and check with Trump," he said.
What choice do I have but to trust the media? I cannot go to America and check with Trump.
This election will also witness a new generation of leaders, drawn into politics to oppose the BJP's authoritarianism.
One such candidate is Kanhaiya Kumar, a former student leader who was briefly jailed on charges of sedition by the Modi government.
Modi's popularity, Kumar said, is a myth that would be exposed in the election.
"It is a false narrative created by the mainstream media of this country, but the perception is being broken," he toldHuffPost India in 2018.
As Modi's economic policies have faltered, his party and its rightwing allies have sought to ratchet up tensions between the country's Hindu majority and religious minorities like Christians and Muslims.
One consequence has been a coarsening of political discourse that has empowered bigots on all sides.
Zahid, a shopkeeper in Meerut, is voting for opposition candidate, Haji Mohammad Yaqub, a wealthy meat exporter, who, in 2005, said that he would give Rs 510 million for the head of the Danish caricaturist who satirized the Prophet Muhammad in a set of 12 cartoons. At the time, Yaqub was a minister with a state government.
Zahid is confident that Yaqub will win. The 26-year-old, who has studied till the 10 grade, would have liked to be a cricketer instead of sitting at a shop, but he had to support his family after his father died.
"BJP is not good for Muslims. They are interfering in our personal laws," he said. "We don't know when or where a Muslim can be attacked," he said.
We don't know when or where a Muslim can be attacked.
Referring to the recent incident in which a Muslim family in Gurugram, a city bordering Delhi, was attacked by a Hindu mob, he said, "If Muslims had done the same thing, they would have been called terrorists, but they are Hindus, so nothing."
Win or lose, the Modi government's insistence on playing the majority against the minority is likely to leave deep scars on Indian politics.
The party's Hindu-revivalist agenda, or Hindutva, has already pushed the Indian National Congress, the party of India's freedom struggle and the principal opposition party, rightwards.
"The BJP copied the Congress and tried to invent history," Visvanathan, the professor said, referring Modi's determination to find a place in the pantheon of Indian leaders. "The Congress has copied BJP and tried to invent Hindutva. This has convinced no one."