The Irish Times view on the Indian general election: Democracy writ large

Some 900m citizens entitled to vote and 10% of world’s population are expected to

People wearing masks of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi cheer as they attend his election campaign rally at Kathua, India on Sunday. Photograph: Jaipal Singh/EPA

The statistics of India’s general election tell a story of huge scale and democratic grandeur. Some 900 million citizens are entitled to vote, and 760 million (10 per cent of the world’s population) are expected to do so, in 29 states and seven union territories for the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, parliament’s lower house.

Voting by electronic means is in seven waves between now and May 19th, with results due four days later. The proliferation of 400 million smartphones among India’s 1.3 billion citizens makes the online campaign especially significant this time around.

More than 2,000 local and regional parties are standing, but among the five national ones the major choice is between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi and the Indian Congress Party led by Rahul Gandhi.

In 2014 the BJP formed a government with a majority of 282 seats, the first time in 30 years of coalition government any party secured an overall majority. It had 10 seats more than necessary.


The country's 200 million Muslims gravitate to other parties, including Congress in response

The Congress party won only 44 seats in 2014. Five years later, it struggles to present the huge electorate with a coherent programme based on farmer discontent (70 per cent of voters live in rural areas) and the failure of Modi’s government to fulfil its promises to create jobs, despite more than six per cent economic growth.

The Congress party traditionally seeks to mobilise secular and lower caste Indians against the Hindu majority who mainly vote for the BJP.

Modi has successfully tapped into Hindu devotion and nationalism, notably by his missile attack on a Pakistani training centre after 40 Indian paramilitaries were killed in Kashmir in February. The country's 200 million Muslims gravitate to other parties, including Congress in response.

Modi still retains popular esteem as a relatively honest and hard working leader compared to previous ones, according to surveys, despite the economic dissatisfactions. Given the grand scale and diversity of Indian democracy, his most successful achievement is to have created a new awareness of national unity.