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Bay Area Indians Brace for India’s Pivotal 2024 Election: Here’s What to Know

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An arm with an index finger points upward. Ink is on the fingertip, and the word "vote" is written on the back of the hand. Blurred faces painted with Indian flags are seen in the background.
College students spread awareness for first-generation voters during an election campaign ahead of India's upcoming national elections in Chennai, India, on March 19, 2024.  (R. Satish Babu/AFP via Getty Images)

India — the largest democracy in the world — kicked off its election season on Friday, April 19. Voters will head to the polls during a period of 44 days, with results announced on June 4.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, hopes to further cement its control of India’s Parliament, while the opposition seeks to interrupt the 10 consecutive years of BJP government.

Voters in India’s election comprise over 10% of the world’s population. And for Indians and Indian Americans in the Bay Area, talk of this election may have been looming in the background for quite some time. Perhaps the WhatsApp family group chats are getting busier with videos of angry TV pundits. Or maybe your auntie and uncle are trying to reel you into policy debates.

But how exactly does India’s election work, and what’s at stake? Keep reading to get up to speed on why this election is so important for India — and the unique role the diaspora plays.

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How does India’s 2024 election work?

Unlike the United States, which for most of its recent history only gave voters one day to cast their ballots, India carries out its elections over several weeks to make voting more accessible to its large population.

This year’s general election period will last six weeks, starting on April 19, and results will be announced on June 4. The voters will elect 543 members for the lower house of Parliament for a five-year term.

The polls will be held in seven phases, and ballots will be cast at more than a million polling stations. Each phase will last a single day, with several constituencies across multiple states voting that day. The staggered polling allows the government to deploy tens of thousands of troops to prevent violence and transport election officials and voting machines.

India has a first-past-the-post multiparty electoral system in which the candidate who receives the most votes wins. A party or coalition must breach the mark of 272 seats to secure a majority.

Who is running in India’s 2024 election?

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and his main challenger, Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress, represent Parliament’s two largest factions. Several other important regional parties are part of an opposition bloc.

Opposition parties, which have been previously fractured, have united under a front called INDIA, or Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, in the hope of denying Modi a third straight election victory.

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The alliance has fielded a single primary candidate in most constituencies. But it has been roiled by ideological differences and personality clashes and has not yet decided on its candidate for prime minister.

Most surveys suggest Modi is likely to win comfortably, especially after he opened a Hindu temple in northern Ayodhya city in January, which fulfilled his party’s long-held Hindu nationalist pledge.

Another victory would cement Modi as one of the country’s most popular and important leaders. It would follow a thumping win in 2019 when the BJP clinched an absolute majority by sweeping 303 parliamentary seats. The Congress party managed only 52 seats.

What’s at stake for India?

With over 1.4 billion people and close to 970 million voters, India’s general election pits Prime Minister Modi, an avowed Hindu nationalist, against a broad INDIA coalition struggling to play catch-up.

The 73-year-old Modi first swept to power in 2014 on promises of economic development, presenting himself as an outsider cracking down on corruption. Since then, he has fused religion with politics in a formula that has attracted wide support from the country’s majority Hindu population.

India under Modi is a rising global power, but his rule has also been marked by rising unemployment, attacks by Hindu nationalists against minorities, particularly Muslims, and a shrinking space for dissent and free media.

In the Bay Area, many Indian residents feel the same concern. “It is a vote about the future of a concept called India itself,” said Shan Sankaran, an entrepreneur in Sunnyvale. Sankaran also shared his concern that India could become an autocracy with Modi at the helm.

Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of the Kashmir Times who is currently a fellow at Stanford, echoed some of his sentiments. “It’s a moment when India is at a crossroads.”

“These elections are very crucial. They will decide where India is headed,” she said.

What are some of the big issues in this India election?

For decades, India has clung doggedly to its democratic convictions, largely due to free elections, an independent judiciary, a thriving media, strong opposition and peaceful transition of power. Some of these credentials have slowly eroded under Modi’s 10-year rule, with the polls seen as a test of the country’s democratic values.

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Many watchdogs have now categorized India as a “hybrid regime” that is neither a full democracy nor a full autocracy.

The polls will also test the limits of Modi, a populist leader whose rise has seen increasing attacks against religious minorities, mostly Muslims. Critics accuse him of using a Hindu-first platform, endangering the country’s secular roots.

Under Modi, the media — once viewed as vibrant and largely independent — have become more pliant and critical voices muzzled. Courts have largely bent to Modi’s will and given favorable verdicts in crucial cases. Centralization of executive power has strained India’s federalism. And federal agencies have bogged down top opposition leaders in corruption cases, which they deny.

Another key issue is India’s large economy, which is among the fastest-growing in the world. It has helped India emerge as a global power and a counterweight to China. But even as India’s growth soars by some measures, the Modi government has struggled to generate enough jobs for young people and instead has relied on welfare programs like free food and housing to woo voters.

The U.N.’s latest Asia-Pacific Human Development Report lists India among the top countries with high income and wealth inequality.

How the country’s election might impact Indian communities in California

In the Bay Area, Indian immigrants make up one out of every five residents in many South and East Bay neighborhoods. In the region’s two biggest counties — Santa Clara and Alameda — those born in India are now the largest immigrant group. Not to mention, the Bay Area has become home to several Indians and Indian Americans in high places, like Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai, Adobe’s Shantanu Narayen, and, of course, Vice President Kamala Harris, who was born in Oakland. And the history of the Bay Area would be incomplete without the work of Indian and Indian American organizers —  as evidenced by Berkeley’s South Asian Radical Walking History Tour and the city’s Kala Bagai Way.

Indians abroad wield a lot of economic power in India. Last year, Indians in the U.S. sent $125 billion back to India in remittances (payments to family) — roughly equivalent to 3.3% of the Indian GDP.

Bhasin, the Kashmir Times editor at Stanford, said she has seen that divisive narratives in India have echoes in the Bay Area. “The Indian diaspora is as divided as Indians are in India,” she said.

“Their idea of India depends on the kind of sources of information they’re looking at,” she explained. If they are looking at mainstream media, their reading is different from those relying on non-mainstream digital media outlets, she said.

Deepthi Rao, who has been in the Bay Area for the last eight years, said she is a Modi fan. “I am a queer person of color,” she said. “The [BJP] have been, unrightfully, in my opinion, demonized as anti-LGBTQ.” She explained that in 2018, under the BJP government, Article 377 — a law that criminalized consensual homosexual acts — was abolished. In 2013, however, when the Indian National Congress party was in power, Article 377 was reinstated.

She would like to go back to India to vote, she said — but isn’t sure if she’ll be able to make it.

I’m an Indian national in the US. Can I still vote in the elections?

Non-resident Indians in the U.S. for employment or education and are not citizens of any other country are eligible to register as voters with the address in their Indian passport.

However, they would be required to vote in person at their polling location in India — no mail-in, remote voting from outside that location is possible.

This article includes reporting from KQED’s Lakshmi Sarah.

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