Indian women cast their ballots at a polling station outside Hyderabad. Photo: Getty.
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Everything you need to know about India’s elections

On 16 May we'll know the results of the world’s biggest-ever elections – with 814m Indians voting over six weeks. What’s at stake?

On 16 May we’ll know the results of the world’s largest-ever election. 814 million people are eligible to vote in India’s elections, with voting carried out across the vast country over a six week period. The scale of the project is staggering: 11 million people have been deployed to help conduct the elections and 1.4 million electronic voting machines have been installed nationwide, all at an estimated cost of $600m to the Indian government.

So what do you need to know about what’s happening in the world’s largest democracy?

The three main candidates:

Narendra Modi (Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP))

Photo: Getty

In all likelihood, the Hindu nationalist candidate Narendra Modi will soon become India’s next prime minister. Modi’s rise to power has been both unlikely and impressive: the son of a tea-seller rose rapidly through the ranks of the RSS, a neo-Fascist paramilitary organisation with links to the BJP, gaining a reputation as a formidable organiser. Since 2001 he has been the chief minister of Gujarat, where he leaves a mixed-legacy.

On the one hand, he is credited with introducing pro-business reforms that have boosted the Gujarat economy. On the other, many (including Human Rights Watch) believe he was complicit in the 2002 riots in Gujarat that contributed to the death of at least 2000 Muslims and the displacement of many more. Although he denies responsibility, comments suggesting he regretted Muslims’ suffering as he would a “puppy being run over by a car” leave many fearful of his ability to unify India’s diverse, multi-sectarian population.

 

Rahul Gandhi (Congress)

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Rahul Gandhi is the figurehead for Congress, the party of the current prime minister Manmohan Singh. Rahul Gandhi is Congress royalty: he is the son of the party leader Sonia Gandhi and is related to three former Indian prime ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Other than that, Indians have found little to inspire them in the Gandhi princeling, and are doubtful as to Congress’s economic legacy in power.

 

Arvind Kejriwal (Aam Aadmi)

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Arvind Kejriwal is the clear underdog in the race. The former taxman turned anti-corruption campaigner is running on a shoestring budget but with an anti-corruption campaign that resonates with disaffected middle-class Indians. After a surprise victory in Delhi's local elections, Kejriwal resigned after just 49 days as chief minister in Delhi in 2013 after failing to pass through his flagship policy of introducing an anti-graft ombudsman, and his protests stunts including hunger-strikes and rough sleeping divides popular opinion: is he a serious political player able to shake-up India’s murky politics from within, or is he more skilled as an activist agitating from the outside?

 

It’s the economy, stupid

Most commentators agree the key issue in this election is the Indian economy. Economic growth is slowing, and ordinary Indians face rising inflation. The country’s economic liberalisation programmes, started in the 1990s, supported the expansion of India’s middle class and a rising super-elite (India now has 56 billionaires) but according to the World Bank, India is still home to a third of the world’s poorest people, those who are surviving on less than 82p a day. 68.8 per cent  per cent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, and India is in the curious position that more of the population has access to a mobile phone than to a toilet.

A series of corruption scandals among India’s economic and political elite have only highlighted this lopsided economic growth, and contributed to discontent among the middle classes and poorer Indians. In a recent poll, 96 per cent of Indians said corruption was holding their country back, and 92 per cent thought it has got worse in the past five years, a sentiment that has helped fuel the rise of India’s third party.

 

Social change

Although India is still a largely rural population - 68 per cent of Indians live in rural areas, and around half the workforce is employed in agriculture, economic growth and a rising middle class has helped bring about social change. The protests over the 2012 gang rape of a student in Delhi highlighted both the scale of violence against women in the country, the state of women’s rights and the potential power of mass protests. Women’s turnout has steadily increased over recent elections, and a recent poll has suggested that 75 per cent of men and women participating in the election believe the political promises made to advocate women’s rights have been inadequate so far. In the 2009 elections just 11 per cent of parliamentary seats were held by women. 

Last month the Supreme Court in India has issued a new law allowing transgender people to change their gender on official documents to reflect their gender identity. This is the first election in which India’s transgender community are able to mark their gender as “other” on their ballot forms – a move that many hope is a first step towards greater economic empowerment and social recognition.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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The failed French presidential candidates who refuse to endorse Emmanuel Macron

While the candidates of the main left and right parties have endorsed the centrist from nowhere, others have held back. 

And breathe.

At 8pm on Sunday night France, Europe, and much of the West let out a huge sigh of relief. After over a month of uncertainty, scandals, rebounds, debates and late surges, the results of the first round of the French Presidential Election was as predicted: Emmanuel Macron (24 per cent) will face off against Marine Le Pen (21 per cent) in the second round of the election on the 7 May.

While polls have been predicting this face-off for a while, the shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump had thrown polling predictions into doubt. But France has a good track record when it comes to polling, and their surveys are considered some of the most reliable in the world. The irony is that this uncertainty has meant that the polls have never been so central to a campaign, and the role of polling in democracies has been a hot topic of debate during the election.

The biggest surprise in many ways was that there were no surprises. If there was a surprise, it was a good one: participation was higher than expected: close to 80 per cent – on par with the Presidential Elections of 2012 – whereas there were concerns it would be as low as 70 per cent. Higher participation is normally a bad sign for the extremes, who have highly motivated voters but a limited base, and who often do better in elections when participation is low. Instead, it boosts the traditional parties, but here instead of the traditional right-wing Republican (Fillon is at 20 per cent) or Socialist parties (Hamon at 6 per cent), it was in fact the centre, with Emmanuel Macron, who benefited.

So France has so far not succumbed to the populist wave that has been engulfing the West. The contagion seemed to be spreading when the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost a referendum on reforming the constitution, but the fightback started in Austria which rejected the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in its Presidential election and voted for the pro-European, former-Green independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. Those hopes now rest on the shoulders of Macron. After having dubbed Angela Merkel the leader of the free world during his farewell tour of Europe, Barack Obama gave his personal blessing to Macron last week.

Many wondered what impact Thursday night’s shooting on the Champs-Elysées would have. Would it be a boon for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration platform? Or even right-wing François Fillon’s more traditional law and order approach? In the end the effect seems to have been minimal.

In the second round, Macron is currently predicted to beat Marine Le Pen by more than 60 per cent of the vote. But how does Le Pen almost double her vote in the second round, from around 20 per cent to close to 40 per cent? The "Republican Front" that saw her father off back in 2002, when he received only 18 per cent of the vote, has so far held at the level of the two traditional political parties. Both Hamon and Fillon have called to vote for Macron in the second round to stop the Front National - Hamon put it nicely when he said he could tell the difference between political opponents, and opponents of the Republic.

But not everyone is toing the line. Sens Commun, the anti-gay marriage group that has supported Fillon through thick and thin, said that it will not call to vote for either party – a thinly veiled invitation to vote for Le Pen. And Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a conservative, Catholic and anti-EU right wing candidate, whose 5 per cent is the reason Fillon didn’t make it to the second round, has also abstained from calling to vote for either. It is within this electorate that Le Pen will look to increase her vote.

The other candidate who didn’t call to vote for anyone was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who fell back on a demagogic position of saying he would follow the wishes of his supporters after having consulted them. But as a spokesperson for the FN pointed out, there are remarkable congruities between their respective platforms, which can be categorised as a populism of the left and a populism of the right.

They in particular converge over the question of Europe. Aping Brexit, both want to go to Brussels to argue for reform, and if none is forthcoming put membership of the Eurozone to the electorate. While Le Pen’s anti-Europeanism is patent, Mélenchon’s position is both disingenuous and dangerous. His Plan A, as he puts it, is to attempt reform at the European level. But he knows fine well that his demands, which include revoking the independence of the European Central Bank and putting an end to austerity (the ECB, through its massive programme of quantitative easing, has already been trying to stimulate growth) will not be met. So he reverts to his Plan B, which is to leave the European Treatises and refound Europe on a new basis with like-minded members.

Who those members might be he hasn’t specified, nor has he explained how he would leave the EU - at least Le Pen had the decency to say she would put it to a referendum. Leaving the European Treatise has been in his programme from the beginning, and seems to be the real object of his desires. Nonetheless, having set himself up as the anti-Le Pen candidate, most of his supporters will vote for Macron. Others will abstain, and abstention will only help Le Pen. We’ve been here before, and the last thing we need now is complacency.

 

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