DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Voting is getting started today in the largest general election the world has ever seen. India is home to 900 million eligible voters, and polls there are opening this morning. Because of the vastness of the country and with so many people to reach, this election is going to be carried out in several stages, meaning it will be weeks before votes are in and counting can actually begin. More than 500 parliamentary seats are up for grabs here, and that includes that of incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is running for a second term. NPR's Lauren Frayer is at a polling station in northern India.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi there.
GREENE: So where exactly are you, and what's the atmosphere like?
FRAYER: I'm in a courtyard of a school that's being used as a polling station a couple hundred yards from the Ganges River. And people are streaming out of the school here after voting, with ink on their fingers that signifies they have voted. And this is one of one million polling stations across this country. And when I say polling station, sometimes it's just, like, a handful of people with an electronic voting machine. The rules say that no Indian voter should have to travel more than 2 kilometers. So that's less than a mile and a half to vote.
And so election officials have trekked across glaciers, through jungles, to get this voting infrastructure out to every last citizen. Now, it's all electronic voting on machines, machines that sort of fit in a small suitcase. And we've seen these election commission workers, you know, wading across rivers with these machines overhead to get in place for this polling.
GREENE: God. Those are some incredible scenes you're describing. As you've been talking to voters, I mean, what have you been learning, and does it sort of give us a sense from afar of what this election is about and what people are finding important?
FRAYER: So it's really a sort of a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. He was elected five years ago, 2014, with this historic majority. He made a lot of promises. People are evaluating his performance. The Indian economy is booming, but unemployment has also hit a four-decade high. Crop prices are low. That means food is cheap. That's good. But farmers are struggling. Their profits are low.
Where I am, in Haridwar, this is a place where Modi's party has done really well before. This is sort of the Hindi heartland, Modi's base. And earlier, I met a couple of elderly gentlemen, retirees, hanging out on the banks of the Ganges River talking about Prime Minister Modi.
SHASHI PRAKASH SHARMA: He's doing his best for the country.
FRAYER: And you think five more years?
SHARMA: Yes. I want. Belongs to a poor family.
MOHAN LAL: We like him as a person. Policies? We are not directly into politics. We are normal people.
FRAYER: So that was Shashi Prakash Sharma and Mohan Lal, and they say they like Modi, the man, you know, the former tea seller. For them, his policies are really secondary, except for national security. And that's something that comes up a lot talking to voters. Violence broke out this winter between India and its neighbor, Pakistan. Airstrikes. Both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. And so during all of that, Modi cast himself, really, as this safe pair of hands to care for the country.
GREENE: All right. Setting up the election in India, a massive election, 900 million eligible voters. It's going to take a while before we can actually figure out who won and whether Narendra Modi gets another term. NPR's Lauren Frayer covering it for us this morning.
Lauren, thanks a lot.
FRAYER: You're welcome.