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India is halfway through the voting season. The ruling BJP is showing signs of worry

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

India is in the midst of its mammoth six-week-long election season. Nearly a billion people are eligible to vote, but turnout's lower than expected. That causes concern for the ruling nationalist BJP Party and the incumbent prime minister, Narendra Modi, who was widely expected to win a third term. NPR's Diaa Hadid covers the country from Mumbai. Diaa, thanks so much for being with us.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: It's a pleasure.

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SIMON: Why do you think the turnout's been lower than in the last election?

HADID: The data is hazy so far, but perhaps people presume the BJP will win, so they're not voting. It could be a sense of frustration. Many people told us they're struggling with the rising cost of food. India's economy is growing, but it's leaving a lot of people behind.

SIMON: What's the BJP done to try and increase turnout?

HADID: Well, critics say the BJP is scrambling to whip up voters by resorting to a tactic they've leaned on in the past, scaremongering about Muslims, India's largest minority. And it began in earnest with Modi at a rally in late April, where he described Muslims as, quote, "infiltrators." There's been a slew of incendiary speeches and campaign videos since, including one this week that described Indian Muslims as looters and invaders and thieves. One man who's been writing about this is Siddharth Varadarajan. He's a founder of a critical media outlet here called The Wire.

SIDDHARTH VARADARAJAN: Mr. Modi recognizes that the election isn't quite going the way that he had hoped and is banking on inciting hatred against Muslims in order to somehow convince Hindus that they are under threat and that they have no option if they want to safeguard their well-being but to vote for him and for his party.

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SIMON: So there's a sense that the prime minister and the ruling party are essentially pulling out all the stops to win?

HADID: Yeah. And these are elections which already - critics say Modi and his party were enjoying a pretty tilted playing field. Varadarajan accuses the government of using its executive authority to hound its rivals, including by detaining the popular chief minister of New Delhi on allegations of kickbacks. He says much of India's big media houses cheer on Modi. And the BJP's outspending all its rivals after it amassed hundreds of millions of dollars through a now-outlawed scheme that allowed anonymous donations. This is Varadarajan of The Wire again.

VARADARAJAN: What we have is a completely unfair, unfree election.

HADID: But I should add though, Scott, the BJP officials I've been speaking to say they're likely to win because they campaign effectively. They marshal volunteers to work for the party and because the opposition is divided, chaotic and, they claim, corrupt.

SIMON: What can you tell us about the reaction of voters?

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HADID: Well, Modi is asserting Hindu dominance, like by consecrating a temple on grounds where raiders once tore down a medieval mosque, and for many Hindus, that resonates. Others tell us they're voting for Modi because he's put India on the world stage. And notice here, folks say Modi, not the BJP. He's more popular than his party, and he pitches himself as this father figure who governs alone. And then there are others who say Modi's has done a lot for the country, like university student Sakshi Tale. We met her in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi.

SAKSHI TALE: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: She says she's voting for Modi because he's made Indian cities literally cleaner, picked up the trash, beautified the streets. And she says he's made those streets safer for women.

SIMON: NPR's Diaa Hadid in Mumbai. Thanks so much for being with us.

HADID: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon
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.
Diaa Hadid
Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.