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Indian elections are a referendum on Modi’s politics

Voting concluded in India on Sunday in the final phase of a weeks-long election. With more than 900 million registered voters, the final results expected Thursday will decide if Prime Minister Narendra Modi stays in power. Jeffrey Gettleman, The New York Times South Asia bureau chief, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss India’s election process and the issues facing the world’s largest democracy.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    India completed a weeks-long national vote today, one that will determine which party controls its parliament and whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi will win a second term. Exit polls show Modi's party leading but the final results will come Thursday when all of the ballots cast since April 11th are counted.

    For more on India's election process and the issues facing the world's largest democracy, I spoke with Jeffrey Gettleman, The New York Times South Asia bureau chief who was in Chennai, India and joined us by Skype.

    Just for just a bit of background for the American audience, you know, we're used to reporting results and exit polls in a matter of hours if not days. Explain how long the Indian election is and why it's that way.

  • Jeffrey Gettleman:

    This is the world's largest election in human history and it may also be the world's most prolonged election. It started more than five weeks ago. The way they do voting here it happens in seven different phases, spread out over five weeks. So it started in April.

    The voting has proceeded pretty smoothly around the country. There were 900 million registered voters, which is larger than the population of the United States and Europe combined. And today is the last day of voting.

    And once that happens there's three or four more days and then they release all the results at once.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How much of this is a referendum on the Prime Minister and his promises?

  • Jeffrey Gettleman:

    That's exactly what it is. The prime minister of India, Narendra Modi is a larger than life figure. He's an incredible orator, very forceful speaker, one of the most domineering politicians India has produced in decades.

    In the plus column, India remains a relatively strong economy, the sixth largest. It has succeeded in projecting its image abroad more forcefully under Modi than it has in previous prime ministers. And Modi has all of these ambitious social and economic initiatives that he's trying to finish, which he hasn't. That's in the positive for Modi.

    And the negative, he's accused of being very divisive, of separating Indians by caste and by religion. This happens subtly and the critics say that it's often members of his party that are doing the instigating between these different communities, not Modi himself. But the result has been high tensions between Hindus and Muslims, lynchings of many Muslims and lower caste Indians and a sense of fear that India is pulling apart along these very fragile social axes. Also joblessness is a big problem in India. The country needs to create something like 1 million new jobs a month to keep up with the population growth and the number of young people entering the workforce.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And what about on the world stage and foreign policy? How has Modi managed these last five years, especially in relation to say the powerful neighbors of China and Russia and the relationship the United States?

  • Jeffrey Gettleman:

    That's a really good question. Modi has promoted India more than any recent prime minister in decades. He travels a lot. He nearly went to war with Pakistan a couple months ago saying that India would not tolerate any terrorism that was linked to Pakistan at all. India has nuclear arms Pakistan has nuclear arms. It really was risking a major confrontation to take this aggressive posture and he did it and it won time lots of support with the United States and China.

    It's really interesting.

    Here are the two superpowers left in the world — an old one and a new one in India sandwiched right in between. The United States would love to make India its partner in this region to check China but India has a long history of being neutral on the stage of world affairs. And Modi is pushing that. He's doing business both with Russia and with the United States.

    And the last thing I would say is India's economy is enormous. It's the sixth largest economy in the world and it's growing every year. 1.3 billion people, a high tech sector, lots of other industries, more infrastructure. So even though there's many poor people in this country just by the sheer scale of the economy, it's a world player. And Modi has been pushing that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Jeffrey Gettleman South Asia bureau chief for The New York Times joining us via Skype. Thanks so much.

  • Jeffrey Gettleman:

    Pleasure.

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