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India begins voting in elections with a prominent opposition leader in jail

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The world's most populated country heads to the polls. Over 900 million people are eligible to vote in India's elections that began this week and will end on June 1. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set up for a third term. His right-wing BJP party is aiming to expand their majorities. Pavni Mittal is a special correspondent at the PBS NewsHour and joins us now from New Delhi. Pavni, thanks very much for being with us.

PAVNI MITTAL: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Modi's government's been criticized for intimidating some members of the opposition and undermining democratic institution, like the Election Commission. Is this being accepted as a free and fair election?

MITTAL: In the sense whether people are voting and the votes are legitimate, yes, it is. The questions that are being raised are more to do with institutions. Opposition parties and even investigative journalists and rights groups say that democratic institutions have been undermined. As I speak, there are several members of the opposition that are being detained or are in jail over allegations largely around corruption. Prime Minister Modi and his party enjoys a largely subservient press. You know, there are journalists who are in jail over charges of terrorism simply because they did a story that just didn't make the government look too good.

SIMON: What are voters talking about? What are the main issues for them?

MITTAL: So this election is about Prime Minister Modi. And this is expected to be a vote of confidence, because even though there are concerns about a turn to illiberal democracy in India, there is a large section of society that has bought into what Modi has delivered, which in essence is reshaping the country.

On the economic front, his welfare programs are popular. Corporate tax rates have been slashed. On the social front, there is, of course, his majoritarian politics centered around religion. There has been an institutional attempt to prioritize Hinduism at the cost of minorities, particularly Muslims. And then there is the issue of foreign policy. And what Modi has really been able to convince people is that India's stature in the world has to do with him and his policies.

SIMON: I gather his party, the BJP, is widely expected to win, but perhaps only a plurality, not a majority. What about the opposition?

MITTAL: So India has hundreds of parties. What the opposition leaders have done is several of them, the key big players, have come together to form an alliance. And their goal is to limit the victory margin of the BJP. The allegations that the government has been trying to jail their leaders - India's main national party, which is the Congress Party, has alleged that its election funds have been frozen by tax authorities. All these issues have actually proven to be a bond for them. It sort of glued them together. And just a few weeks ago, they held a massive rally, a big show of strength. For them, you know, it's not just about winning an election. For them, this is about survival.

SIMON: Pavni, what are you going to be looking for as the vote proceeds and then as their - as they begin to be counted early in June?

MITTAL: The victory margin will be interesting. I'm also looking forward to seeing how the opposition parties figure their way around this. You know, they do have a case to make to people. In essence, I think what this vote will really tell us is how people in India view their country and what it should really be. Do they believe in the ideals on which India was founded or what Prime Minister Modi and his party want it to be?

SIMON: Pavni Mittal is a special correspondent at the PBS NewsHour. Thanks so much for being with us.

MITTAL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: April 21, 2024 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier version of this transcript webpage mistakenly said this story was reported by Jane Arraf. It is a conversation between host Scott Simon and journalist Pavni Mittal.
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.