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India's six-week long elections started today

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today marks the start of India's elections. Just the start because this is the world's biggest democracy - nearly a billion voters are eligible to cast their ballots over the next six weeks. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Dausa, a country town in the northwestern state of Rajasthan.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: A man turns up to vote in a dusty schoolyard. He's in a bright pink turban speckled with jewels, ropes of pearls, an elegant white coat and pants. Omprakash Varna says he got married last night and donned his traditional finery again to cast his vote.

OMPRAKASH VARNA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: "It sends a message," he says. "Voting is as important as getting married." He says the government's doing its job right...

VARNA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: ...So he's voting for more of the same - the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who leads the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP. Modi is expected to win a third straight term in power, but he's not taking any chances. He's been campaigning all over India, including Dausa.

Homemaker Priya Sharma was among the thousands who came, her son on her hips.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Modi, Modi, Modi, Modi, Modi.

HADID: Sharma said her town is cleaner since Modi came to power. India is less corrupt.

PRIYA SHARMA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Mostly, she says, she supports Modi because he's transforming India into a Hindu nation, a nation that privileges its Hindu majority. This worries critics. They say it's a radical transformation of India which promises equality to all its citizens. They also worry about the fate of India's democracy under Modi and the BJP.

KAPIL KOMIREDDI: You ask me if the elections are free? Yes. But are the elections fair? Absolutely not.

HADID: Kapil Komireddi wrote a book critiquing Modi's years in power. Komireddi says Modi's unleashed state enforcement agencies onto his rivals. Authorities briefly froze the bank accounts of the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, over unpaid tax dues. A rival party leader is in detention over accusations of kickbacks. BJP spokespeople say this is simply the law in action.

Much of India's media cheerleads the prime minister, and news reports say Modi's BJP party coffers are swollen with hundreds of millions of dollars from a now-outlawed anonymous donation scheme. Komireddi compares this to the Sacha Baron Cohen film, "The Dictator."

KOMIREDDI: There's a scene in "The Dictator" where he's running on the track. He runs before everyone else, and then he gets a pistol out and fires at his opponents. And that's a bit like Modi. He's running, yes, but everyone else is crippled.

HADID: Still, many Indians see voting as sacred, a rare chance to shake the halls of power that feel so distant, particularly from places like Dausa. Mohammad Arif Khan speaks to us before he goes in to vote. He says unemployment is rampant here. Rising food prices are hurting people. He says the BJP has whipped up hatred against Muslims in his area and accuses the party of working for the rich.

MOHAMMAD ARIF KHAN: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says, "look, I know the BJP is going to win, but I came here to vote because it's my right." Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Dausa.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAY LAMONTAGNE'S "PART TWO - A MURMURATION OF STARLINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.