By: John Elliott

Voting begins today (April 11) in India’s massive general election with opinion polls suggesting that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist coalition might just scrape through with a tiny majority in the Lok Sabha.

Regional non-aligned parties could win almost as many seats in the new parliament as the Congress Party’s coalition.

It does not, however, at this stage, look as if the opposition and regional parties will muster enough votes to rein in the authoritarian religion-based Hindu nationalism espoused by Modi and Amit Shah, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president.

The result of the election will not be known until polling ends on May 19 and the votes are counted on May 23, by which time a variety of possible poll results will have been published. Nothing is certain at this stage. An estimated 900 million eligible voters will cast their votes over seven phases lasting nearly six weeks

The NDTV ‘poll of polls’

The BJP has been showing signs of desperation to try to drum home its messages that Modi protects India’s security, especially against Pakistan, and that it is curbing corruption. It hopes this will divert attention from its record on the creation of jobs and other development issues.

In a series of moves that challenge India’s model code of conduct for elections, the finance ministry’s enforcement directorate has raided the premises of eleven opposition leaders in the past month, revealing hordes of black money that are always present at election time. There have been no raids on BJP and its election allies. The leaders included Kamal Nath, a veteran Congress politician, who is chief minister in Madhya Pradesh.

Modi has breached Election Commission instructions by appealing to new voters, “Can your first vote be dedicated to those who carried out the air strike,” referring to an Indian Air Force strike on an alleged Pakistan terrorist camp on February 26.

Two BJP regional leaders have called the Indian army “Modi ki sena (Modi’s army)” and said that Modi had sent “his air force” to attack an alleged terrorist base in Pakistan on February 26. This fits with Modi’s message, but is in direct contravention of the Commission’s edict that the attack and the Pakistan confrontation should not be used in the election campaign.

Film star Vivek Oberoi in the Modi biopic lead role

Modi and his government have undermined many of India’s respected institutions during the past four years, including the commission. But no politician has previously tried to politicize the role of the army and air force,

The BJP also planned a Bollywood biopic film of Modi’s life that was due for release this week. This was blocked yesterday by the Commission that has been heavily criticized for not being tough enough on the BJP’s breaches of the election code.

“The Election Commission of India, once a formidable force during elections as poll monitor, is now being heard less and less, or only for its feeble interventions,” the Indian Express has said in an editorial.

The indication of voting intentions came in a “poll of polls” published this week by the NDTV television channel. It indicated that the BJP would win 54 fewer seats than it did in 2014 when Modi swept to power, but that its coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), would achieve 274 seats, just topping the 272 needed for a majority in the 543-seat Lok Sabha (lower house).

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah launch the BJP manifesto

Congress could double its dismal 43-seat tally in 2014 but would still only reach 88 seats with its UPA coalition winning a total of 139, while regional parties would get 130. That would be a bad result for Congress, which is hoping that its new leadership of Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka will rally Congress activists and win over voters.

The poll of polls supports views of other observers and is also not far off what, according to one source, the political parties are forecasting privately – the BJP saying it would get around 200 seats, and Congress fearing it will fall below 100. Both main parties would do badly in the key state of Uttar Pradesh, according to the polls, with regional parties taking nearly half the 73 seats that the BJP won in 2014 and Congress going up from just two to four.

Rahul Gandhi launches the Congress manifesto with his mother, Sonia, and former prom minister Manmohan Singh

Both the BJP and Congress have published their manifestos, with the BJP focusing especially on its Hindu nationalist agenda, national security and building a vision for 2047 when India reaches 100 years independence. Congress focuses more on support for the poor and ways of off-setting the BJP’s Hindu nationalism. Both parties talk about boosting India’s manufacturing industries – a key factor in job creation – without saying how it would be done.

Behind all the noise, voters basically have to decide whether Modi’s NDA government has done enough of what has been needed to fulfil his Achhe Din promise that “good times are coming”.

Overall it looks as if it has not. Policies and initiatives have produced far less than was required in the broad running of the economy, the creation of jobs, and reform of the government machine – and far less than the prime minister promised in his 2014 presidential style election campaign.

As a committed Hindu nationalist, Modi had a ten-year vision to build a strong India that would be respected worldwide as a modern version of an ancient Hindu civilization after a thousand years of Muslim and British invasions and rule.

But Modi has not met many of the targets, expectations, and hopes of those who voted for him, and has instead led an increasingly authoritarian and centralized government with restrictions on media and personal freedoms, and with growing mob violence by vigilante gangs who feel protected by the regime.

The choice, therefore, is between the BJP which, despite its Hindu nationalist approach, has the promise of a more focused economic program, providing Modi improves his implementation, and the softer option of the Congress-led UPA, which is unlikely to have the same economic drive and focus.

The result of the election will decide whether India is to grow into a Hindu nationalist country.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. A new “Modi” edition of his book “IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality” has just been published by Harper Collins with a special section analyzing the current government’s record. It is available as a paperback in India’s bookshops and on Amazon India at https://amzn.to/2HldJQ3. A Kindle edition is on the Amazon India site and in the US on https://amzn.to/2CmQwZE  and the UK https://amzn.to/2FinQTm.  He blogs at Riding the Elephant.