oughly 1 in 8 people on Earth are eligible to vote in elections that start Thursday in India.With 900 million voters, the polls are a testa- ment to India's democracy and its commitment to universal franchise (All adults were eligible to vote starting with its first national election, unlike inmany coun- tries). The polls are not only extensive, but con- sequential. In some ways, India is at a cross- roads. Its economy is expanding, but not nearly fast enough to lift tens of millions of people into the middle class the way its neighbor China has. Meanwhile, India ap- pears to have embraced a formof religious nationalism that could change the character of its democracy. Narendra Modi, India's polarizing and charismatic prime minister , intends to take India forward on both fronts. The leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, he swept to power in 2014, promising millions of jobs and an end to corruption scandals. Modi's victory marked the ascendancy of a formof nationalism "based not on secular principles but on the premise that Indian culture is conterminous with Hindu culture," wrote MilanVaishnav of the Carnegie En- dowment for International Peace in a recent article about the elections. The outcome of this campaign will "determine the contours of India's future as a secular republic" com- mitted to embracing diversity and religious pluralism. Eighty percent of Indians are Hindu, but the country also is home to the world's sec- ond-largest Muslimpopulation, with pockets of Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and other religious minorities. India's cultural and linguistic diversity make it more like the European Union than one of its member states, Ruchir Sharma wrote in the Guardian. That "in turn restricts the ability of one leader, even one as charismatic as Modi, to dominate the country." Yet Modi has come closer than any leader in recent times. Although India has a parlia- mentary system, Modi has managed to turn national elections into presidential-style con- tests. After taking office, critics say, he has demonstrated an authoritarian streak, sidelining his own Cabinet and undermining the independence of institutions such as India's equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Most observers simply refer to 'Modi sarkar [government],' underlining its personalization of power," wrote Sanjay Ru- parelia, a political scientist. Modi took office before this recent wave of nationalistic populists started winning elec- tions around the world, but he fits into the mold. Like President DonaldTrump, he has capitalized onmajoritarian resentment. Also like Trump, Modi is a social media master who prefers to communicate directly with voters, including via his eponymous smart- phone application. Modi has not held a sin- gle news conference while in office, and journalists considered to be critical of the government have faced increasing pressure. Reports of violence by extremist Hindu groups have spiked during his tenure. Just a fewmonths ago, it appeared the election campaign would be fought on ter- rain less favorable toModi, with issues such as rising unemployment and distress among farmers at the forefront. Then came the Feb. 14 suicide bombing in Indian-controlled Kashmir, which killed 40 paramilitary offi- cers. A Pakistan-based terrorist group as- serted responsibility for the attack and India launched a retaliatory airstrike on what it said was a militant training camp inside Pak- istan near the town of Balakot. India has released no evidence to back its claims that it hit its target and killed scores of militants (Pakistan says India's bombs dropped on an open hillside, and locals say no one was injured). Nevertheless, Modi has made the strikes a centerpiece of his cam- paign - proof not only of his hard-line stance on national security, but of the perfidy of anyone who questions the official line. "The new India will kill terrorists in their homes," Modi said at a recent rally in Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state. Meanwhile, he said, his opponents ask for evidence of the strike's impact, a sign they do not trust the armed forces or respect the sacrifices of sol- diers. At another rally onTuesday, he urged first-time voters to cast their ballots in honor of the Balakot airstrike. -T HE W ASHINGTON P OST News India Times April 19, 2019 4 Opinion R Published weekly, Founded in 1975. The views expressed on the opinion pages are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect those of News IndiaTimes. 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Road, 29 Adarsh Society Ahmedabad 380009 Tel. 26446947 F ax. 26565596 India bureau chief for The Washington Post India's Election IsAClashOf Symbols By Niha Masih -NEWDELHI N early 900 million Indians are eligible to vote in national elections that start Thursday, an exercise so big that it will take six weeks to complete. The contest involves many political par- ties, each with a symbol - and the symbols themselves have become a unique feature of Indian democracy. When India held its first national election in 1951-52, almost 3 in 4 voters were illiter- ate. To help them identify the party of their choice, visual symbols were allotted to par- ties and candidates.While literacy levels have increased dramatically since, the abiding ap- peal of party symbols has not faded. Until recently, India's voting machines featured only the candidate's name and party symbol. This time, the candidate's photo will also appear on the machine be- side the symbol. While India's seven national parties and 64 state parties have fixed symbols, the Elec- tion Commission also has a pool of "free" symbols that can be used by thousands of smaller, lesser-known organizations. Here's a look at some of the symbols com- peting for voters' attention: Lotus India's national flower, the lotus, is the symbol of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. The lotus is as- sociated with the Hindu goddess of knowl- edge and symbolizes the party's link to Hinduism and its traditions. Hand The palmof a hand is the only body part in use as a party symbol. The Indian National Congress, which led India's struggle for inde- pendence and now serves as the main oppo- sition party, considers the hand a symbol of strength and unity. The elephant is the symbol of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which draws its strength from the Dalit community, formerly known as "untouchables." It is one of the few parties to have an animal symbol. (The use of such symbols was largely discontinued after protests from animal rights groups.) Bicycle The bicycle - a popular mode of transport for the masses - is a popular political symbol. Three regional parties proudly use the bicy- cle as their symbol, including the Samajwadi Party, a powerful player in Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state and home more than 100 million voters. Ears of corn and sickle The symbol of the Communist Party of India draws on classic imagery representing farmers and peasants, but it should not be confused with a similar symbol used by the Community Party of India (Marxist), which uses a hammer, sickle and star. Banana All Jharkhand Students Union, a regional party in central India, has a banana as its symbol. No one is quite sure why. Broom One of India's newest parties, the Com- monMan Party, rode to victory in Delhi's state government on an anti-corruption plat- form. Its symbol - a broom - represents the party's promise to sweep out corruption. Ceiling fan Household objects are often used as sym- bols by parties to position themselves as rep- resenting the commonman. A ceiling fan is the symbol of Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Con- gress Party, in southern India. Car Other parties use symbols like the car - a nod tomodernization and rising aspirations - to pull in voters. The car is the symbol of Telangana Rashtriya Samiti, a regional party in the south that zoomed to power a second time last year. Free symbols Lesser-known parties have to apply for their symbol each election, and there are 198 wonderful and bizarre objects to choose fromon the "free symbols" list. A bat and a batsman reflecting India's passion for cricket seem like good choices. But it's unclear how a party would swing votes its direction by choosing pliers or a drill machine. A long list of food items are on the free symbols list (noodle bowl, cauliflower, peanuts, green chili). There are also some hard-to-fathom choices like a dish rack with three plates in it, and a pen nib radiating rays of ink. -S PECIAL TO T HE W ASHINGTON P OST