THE SCALE of an Indian general election can be hard to grasp. With close to 900m registered voters and 1m polling stations, it is as if every country in the European Union, plus America, Canada and Mexico, as well as Japan and South Korea, were all to vote together. Yet the process generally runs smoothly. The voting this time started on April 11th and is divided into seven phases, to reduce the burden on election personnel and police. The use of nearly 4m portable, battery-operated voting machines will make it possible to tally all the votes on a single day, May 23rd.
The counting may run with symphonic precision, but the rest of the proceedings are pure cacophony. With 8,000 candidates from more than 2,000 parties vying for seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, this is less a national election than 543 separate battles. Rules on election spending are loose and often flouted. Estimates of the cost of this year’s contest are as high as $10bn. Since mid-March the Election Commission has seized some $500m of cash, gold, drugs and alcohol it suspects were intended for bribing voters.
The daunting cost of entry gives candidates with high profiles or deep pockets an advantage. Small wonder that so many are former film and sports stars, gangsters, fat cats or dynasts. The expense of contesting also inflates hopes among poor voters: in one southern state, villagers recently besieged a party office, furious that a middleman who had “sold” their votes paid them only 500 rupees ($7) out of the 2,000 he had pocketed from the candidate for each vote. High costs may also serve to raise the heat: in the past few weeks candidates have variously accused each other of theft, treason, bigotry, support for terrorism and a host of other sins.
Along with scale and intensity, this election packs suspense. India’s first-past-the-post system allows a seat to be won with well under half of the vote, provided other candidates do even less well. Five years ago the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) converted a 31% vote share into a tidy 52% of seats, while its big rival, Congress, squeezed a paltry 8% of seats out of its 19% of votes (see chart). Wild swings are possible: at the last election, in the country’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, had the BJP’s two biggest rivals, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) joined forces, they would have cut the BJP’s seat tally there by nearly half, stripping away its majority. Chastened, the pair, which represent two different slices of the lower castes, are now in alliance.
Excepting astrologers, Indians understandably tend to be wary of political predictions. In the past three general elections, professional pollsters have fallen wide of the mark. Still, there is consensus about the broader outcomes of the contest. No one expects the stars to align so perfectly for Narendra Modi, the prime minister, as they did in 2014, when the BJP won 282 seats on its own. Everyone expects the rival Congress—the only other truly national party—to rise from its dismal 44 seats, but still to remain a distant second. Most expect regional parties, including the BSP and SP, to take about a third of the seats.
Given the advantages he enjoys, Mr Modi is widely tipped to win. The prime minister himself is a talented and tireless campaigner, delivering relentlessly on-message blasts of boosterism mixed with searing swipes at his enemies. Another leg-up comes from having vastly more money. Some of this is unaccountable, but one measure is the value of donations via “electoral bonds”. Since this vehicle for anonymous political gifts was created by the BJP in the name of “transparency” last year, some 95% of all bonds have gone to the ruling party.
Being in power also helps. As elections approached, Mr Modi’s opponents have found themselves targeted by tax raids or police probes. Midway through voting the home ministry has suddenly decided to respond to a public query, dating from 2015, questioning the citizenship of Rahul Gandhi, whose family has led the Congress party for five generations and India for much of the time since independence. Meanwhile, a government programme to compensate small farmers, introduced in February, miraculously placed cash in their accounts in time for the vote. To be fair, some other parties have been just as crass: West Bengal, run by the fiercely anti-BJP Trinamool Congress, has blocked leaders from the rival party from landing helicopters on “its” turf.
Despite holding so many cards, Mr Modi had begun to look vulnerable earlier this year. Congress appeared to rise from the dead in December, toppling BJP governments in local elections in three states across central India. Fatigue with Mr Modi was growing, as well as anger among such important groups as farmers, small traders, minorities and the better-educated. The lapdog media grew noticeably less fawning. There was talk of opposition parties banding together under Mr Gandhi in an all-out bid to beat the BJP.
But the winds then shifted again, this time in Mr Modi’s favour. On February 14th 20-year-old Adil Ahmad Dar ploughed his bomb-laden car into a convoy of paramilitary police in the disputed state of Jammu & Kashmir, killing 40 of them. The attack, claimed by a Pakistan-based terror group, spawned a surge of national emotion that crested two weeks later, when Mr Modi ordered the retaliatory bombing of an alleged terror base deep inside Pakistan.
Mr Modi has mercilessly milked nationalist sentiment, threatening to rain missiles on the enemy in a “night of killing” and scorning his opponents as wobbly-kneed defeatists. Although many Indians, especially those far from the border with Pakistan, find local issues more pressing, the unrelenting bombast has flummoxed Mr Modi’s opponents. Instead of coalescing, they have drifted apart. If the BJP and its closest allies fail to win a majority, he will almost certainly be better placed than Mr Gandhi to court a clutch of regional parties to form a coalition. “If this election were about the fundamentals, Modi and the BJP would be in a pickle,” says Milan Vaishnav of Carnegie, a think-tank. “But given Modi’s popularity, the security dimension and the opposition’s foibles, my sense is the BJP has found a way to make lemonade out of lemons.”