Indians are turning out in record numbers to vote in a national election seen as among the most polarizing ever in the nation of 1.2 billion people.
Turnout has averaged 66 percent through six of nine rounds of voting in elections ending May 16, up from 58 percent in 2009, according to the Election Commission of India. That would surpass the previous record of 64 percent in the 1984 vote in the aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination, which led to a surge in support for her party.
Narendra Modi’s opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, rooted in a Hindu nationalist movement, led in opinion polls conducted before voting started on April 7. The ruling Congress party, in power since 2004, has warned of an increase in tension between Hindus and Muslims if the BJP wins power.
“This is the most polarized election I can remember apart from 1991, which is helping increase voter turnout,” said Jai Mrug, an independent political analyst in Mumbai who conducts opinion polling. “The Modi-led group has done a good job of getting people to the voter booths. At the same time there is a counter mobilization by minority communities to stop him.”
Besides being the highest voter turnout ever, the numbers are also poised for the biggest jump. Turnout so far is 8 percentage points higher than the 2009 election, which would surpass the increase of 7 percentage points in the 1984 elections, according to election commission data.
In the 1991 election, the BJP pushed for the construction of a temple to the Hindu god Ram at the site of a mosque in the town of Ayodhya, a campaign that helped build the party into an electoral force. A year later, a mob of Hindus demolished the mosque, sparking Hindu-Muslim riots that killed about 2,000 people.
To supporters, Modi stands for a business-friendly government that can cut red tape and corruption to revive Asia’s third-biggest economy. To detractors, he failed to stop 2002 riots that killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.
“The media have created an impression there is a love-hate image of Modi on the ground -- it’s very hard to discern whether that’s actually the case,” said A.S. Narang, professor of political science at the New Delhi-based Indira Gandhi National Open University. “Whenever there is an incumbency factor both parties mobilize their voters.”
The high voter turnout is a combination of factors, including polarization over Modi and increased awareness of the need to need to vote, particularly among younger people casting ballots for the first time, said B.G. Verghese, an analyst at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. It’s difficult to predict which particular party may benefit, he said.
More than two-thirds of seats among the 543 up for grabs have already been decided. The last round of voting will take place on May 12, with all votes counted on May 16.
The latest opinion poll released on April 14 by Hansa Research for the NDTV television channel predicts BJP and its allies taking 275 seats, three more than they need for a majority. Most other polls show the BJP-led group falling short of 272 seats.