INTELBRIEF

May 3, 2024

IntelBrief: The World’s Largest Democracy Goes to the Polls

AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Within India’s population of around 1.4 billion, approximately 970 million registered voters are taking part in the largest election in history with current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) vying for a third consecutive term.
  • Modi has deliberately steered India, an officially secular nation, much closer toward Hindu nationalism over his decade-long reign, with critics blaming the marginalization of the country’s Muslim minority population on the BJP’s rise.
  • Like other elections that have occurred in the digital era, misinformation campaigns have proliferated in the lead up to and during the Indian election.
  • Even if the BJP is not necessarily behind the misinformation circulating around the election, Modi has been accused of censorship and of plotting attacks against political adversaries abroad to suppress criticism.

The polls are open for the third week out of a six-week election process in the world’s largest democracy, India. Out of a population of around 1.4 billion, approximately 970 million registered voters are taking part in the largest election in history with current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) vying for a third consecutive term. According to a recent Morning Consult poll, Modi’s approval rating climbed to an astonishing 75 percent, the highest approval rating of all countries included in the poll. Modi is often admired for the economic growth and development India has experienced over the last decade, such as the digitization of the economy. India is now the fifth-largest economy in the world and is projected to keep expanding with the right policies in place, especially those that can promote a business-friendly environment and draw foreign direct investment.

Still, it has been revealed that during Modi’s second term, GDP growth reached its lowest point since the early 1990s. Household debt levels are at a record high, and unemployment is rife. According to Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, the unemployment rate reached 7.6 percent in March. The perception of India’s economic “miracle” is well-received outside the country; however, unemployment and rising prices are seen by the Indian people as two of the biggest concerns in this election.

Modi has also brought India to the forefront of foreign policy through high profile visits to over 60 countries, as well as having hosted the G-20 summit in 2023. Modi’s dedication to diplomacy is widely admired domestically and a source of national pride, especially among the younger generation. A 2023 survey from the Pew Research Center noted that 68 percent of Indians agreed that India’s influence is growing stronger in the world. However, Modi and the BJP’s policies on religion and accusations of online censorship, as well as the abundance of misinformation during the election have created controversy and could derail New Delhi’s upward trajectory.

Modi has deliberately steered India, an officially secular nation, toward Hindu nationalism over his decade-long reign. The concept of Hindutva, that Hinduism and Indian culture are synonymous, is a central pillar of Modi’s and the BJP’s ideology. The growth of Hindu nationalism in India has led to criticism of institutionalized discrimination against minority populations, particularly Muslims, as well as mob violence that the government and the BJP have been accused of inadequately quelling or, at times, exacerbating.

Critics have accused Hindu nationalists in the government of making sweeping changes to legislation that they say unfairly target Muslims. Further, Modi’s decision to remove the special autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir – India's only Muslim-majority state – in 2019 coincided with a military crackdown and a full internet blackout for seven months. In 2020, organized violence targeting Muslims in New Delhi led to the deaths of around 53 people and 200 injured, as well as the destruction and burning of mosques and Muslim homes and businesses. The violence was reportedly led by members of Hindu nationalist groups.

When simmering ethnic tensions erupted into violence in the northeastern state of Manipur last May, local leaders attributed the scale and severity of the violence, particularly against Christian churches, as catalyzed by the pervasiveness of Hindu nationalism. Some critics and local leaders in Manipur blamed the political influence of the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) for the events, accusing the Hindu nationalist organizations of exacerbating long-standing tensions in the community.

Since May 2023, the conflict has left hundreds dead and thousands displaced, with accusations of sexual and gender-based violence against minority women committed by mobs. As the conflict continues to rage on, some have accused the government – despite Modi’s emphasis on a united India in election campaigning – of not doing enough to mitigate or prevent the violence in Manipur. Some human rights activists have gone further to accuse state-sponsored ethnic cleansing.

Like other elections that have occurred in the digital era, mis- and disinformation campaigns have emerged in the lead up to and during the Indian election. Since the last election in 2019, the percentage of internet users in India has surged 43 percent; a total of 820 million people are active online. An investigation through NGOs Global Witness and Access Now revealed that YouTube approved dozens of ads promoting misinformation in India’s election. Particularly, deepfakes have become a popular source of disinformation in the 2024 election. A video recently emerged featuring two well-known Bollywood actors, Aamir Khan and Ranveer Singh, criticizing Prime Minister Modi and endorsing the Congress Party, BJP’s main opposition. Although deepfakes were seen during the 2019 election, generative AI has made it easier and cheaper to create them.

Additionally, political advertisements have led to misinformation campaigns during the election. The Associated Press revealed a study by Indian diaspora group The London Story and India Civil Watch International that discovered “Meta allowed political advertisements and posts that contained anti-Muslim hate speech, Hindu nationalist narratives, misogynistic posts about female candidates as well as ads encouraging violence against political opponents.” These advertisements were seen over 65 million times over 90 days.

Even if the BJP is not necessarily behind the misinformation circulating around the election, Modi has been accused of censorship and of plotting assassinations of political adversaries abroad to suppress criticism. In 2023, two Indian news sites, The Kashmir Walla and Gaon Savera, were blocked, along with their social media accounts. According to Reporters Without Borders, Gaon Savera’s Facebook and X accounts were blocked for five days following the coverage of farmer protests in Punjab and Haryana, who were protesting for “the government to compensate them for the loss of their harvest as result of flooding since July.”

Additionally, widespread internet shutdowns have been implemented to suppress the spread of information. The internet was shut down for over 5,000 hours in Manipur in 2023, following the outbreak of ethnic and religious violence. The Software Freedom Law Center states that “India has ranked first in the world for shutting off the internet over the past five years.” Also in 2023, the Indian government was accused of ordering the assassination of a Sikh separatist living in Canada. Lastly, it was recently uncovered that India's intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, was behind a foiled assassination attempt on one of Modi’s most vocal critics in the U.S.

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