Hindu Nationalist Topping Polls In World's Largest Election

In India, hundreds of millions are casting their ballots in parliamentary elections over the next month. NPR's Rachel Martin talks to Indian reporter Supriya Sharma.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Voting is underway in the world's largest democracy. More than 800 million people will be going to the polls in India over a five-week period to elect their government. The front runner for prime minister is a politician named Narendra Modi, a dynamic and controversial Hindu nationalist, who has promised to turn around India's flagging economy. To hear more about what the election looks like on the ground, we've reached out to Supriya Sharma. She's traveling across India east to west by train to report on the elections. Thanks so much for being with us, Supriya.

SUPRIYA SHARMA: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Supriya, you are in Punjab right now, I understand, the sixth state on your journey. Can you describe for us what unique vantage points a train trip like this has given you on these elections?

SHARMA: The whole idea is that while there's a great deal of coverage of the campaigns of political parties and leaders, there isn't much reporting in the media on what people are thinking. What are their concerns? How do elections impact their lives? So we thought it would be good to do this train journey to get a sense of what's on their minds because trains are great places for conversation.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk a little bit more about what you're finding in those conversations. This past week you were reporting from the state of Uttar Pradesh, India's most politically important state with the largest number of seats in India's parliament. And it sounds like, I understand from what you found there, the state is very divided by caste. And you found that people are voting purely along those lines?

SHARMA: Well, yes. Sadly, the politics of the state is revolving around religion, caste and community. Well, that's partly because people here are so poor. And there's such a great deal of social conflict that they end up seeking security by voting for members of their caste. So this ends up perpetuating a pretty sordid kind of politics where you can win elections without any reference to your performance as a legislator. I also found that along with caste, people who are able to display power seem to do very well.

For instance, a legislator had taken a helicopter to his wedding. His wedding was taking place in a village less than 20 miles from his own. And yet he hired a helicopter to travel there because he wanted to display his power. Because a lot of people in those parts want to vote for someone they consider powerful because the state machinery - the administration is not delivering basic services to people.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, Narendra Modi is the front-runner for prime minister. Polls show him likely to win an overwhelming majority of votes. I wonder what you've been hearing about him, especially from India's Muslim minority.

SHARMA: Well, there's no doubt that Narendra Modi has managed to create an impact in northern India. But I did find that Muslims are pretty apprehensive at the prospect of Modi becoming the prime minister. That's because Modi, as the chief minister of Gujarat - under his watch some of the worst Hindu-Muslim riots took place. More than 2,000 Muslims were killed. He was accused of not only turning a blind eye to the violence but also deliberately inflaming passions.

Since then, of course, Modi has cultivated an image of being a leader who delivers economic growth. Young people in particular, they are fed-up with unemployment. People across the board are fed-up with rising prices. Everyone's craving for a government which can revive the economy and create jobs. And that's where Modi's appeal lies. That's where he's been able to strike a resonance with voters.

MARTIN: Does he have credibility on that issue, Supriya? Is he a good administrator? Could he fix some of India's economic problems?

SHARMA: Well, opinion on this is divided. Modi's supporters believe he has miraculous powers to fix the economy. His detractors believe that the whole story has been over-hyped. But the larger message that's gone across on the media is that Modi is a very good administrator.

MARTIN: Supriya Sharma is a reporter who is traveling across India by train to report on the elections there. The results will be counted on May 16. Supryia, thanks so much for joining us and sharing your reporting.

SHARMA: Thank you so much, Rachel.

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