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The Biggest Electoral Contest in History
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The Biggest Electoral Contest in History

This year’s Indian elections have already been marred by violence.

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Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • President Joe Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday to discuss, among other things, the looming Israeli invasion of the southern Gazan city of Rafah—to which Biden has long been opposed. But the two leaders reportedly focused primarily on the prospects of a temporary ceasefire deal with Hamas in exchange for the remaining hostages the terror organization is holding. “Hamas has not fully rejected it—they are still considering this proposal on the table,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Sunday of the deal. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in the Middle East over the weekend to continue to lobby for the agreement. Meanwhile, aid organization World Central Kitchen announced Sunday it would restart its operations in Gaza—which it paused earlier this month after seven of its employees were killed by an Israeli airstrike following their misidentification as Hamas targets—with local Palestinian staff. 
  • Russian missile strikes over the weekend caused significant damage to Ukrainian energy infrastructure, Ukrainian officials said, pummeling power plants in three regions on Saturday. The commander of the Ukrainian Air Force said the country’s air defenses brought down 21 of the 34 incoming missiles Saturday. Also on Saturday, Ukrainian forces launched a drone strike against a military airfield and two oil refineries in strikes on Russian territory, the Ukrainian security services said, though the extent of the damage was unclear. Meanwhile, Bavarian authorities said they’d arrested a Russian national in connection to the fatal stabbing of two Ukrainian servicemen on leave in Germany on Saturday.
  • The Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation, the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, increased 2.7 percent year-over-year in March, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported Friday—up from a 2.5 percent annual rate one month earlier. Even after stripping out more volatile food and energy prices, core PCE increased at a 2.8 percent annual rate in March, stubbornly above the Fed’s 2 percent target. The Federal Open Markets Committee is scheduled to meet later this week and is widely expected to hold interest rates steady.
  • The Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week regarding the question of presidential immunity related to special counsel Jack Smith’s election interference case against former President Donald Trump. The justices seemed likely to decide that the former president is immune to prosecution for some official acts taken while in office, with a Supreme Court ruling in the case likely instructing the lower court to determine which conduct in Smith’s indictment constituted personal acts and which were official.
  • The New York Court of Appeals on Thursday overturned film producer Harvey Weinstein’s 2020 conviction for first-degree criminal sexual act and third-degree rape, on the grounds that the trial judge should not have allowed witness testimony about allegations not part of the case. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office has said it intends to retry the case. Last year, Weinstein was separately sentenced in Los Angeles, California, to 16 years in prison for rape and sexual assault.
  • Law enforcement arrested more than 200 anti-Israel protesters on college campuses across the U.S. over the weekend, including at Northeastern University, Washington University of St. Louis, and Arizona State University. Meanwhile, Columbia University banned from campus Khymani James, a student protest leader who in a January social media video said “Zionists don’t deserve to live.” 
  • At least four people died—including a 4-month-old infant—after tornadoes tore through Oklahoma overnight on Saturday. The National Weather Service reported that at least 20 tornadoes touched down in the state Saturday night, leading Gov. Kevin Stitt to declare a state of emergency in 12 counties. The system also swept through Nebraska, Iowa, and other midwestern states on Friday, with reports of dozens of tornadoes causing damage and injuring several people. 

Global Democracy’s Big Event 

Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann with party leaders during a road show ahead of the Lok Sabha election in Ludhiana, India, on April 28, 2024. (Photo by Gurpreet Singh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann with party leaders during a road show ahead of the Lok Sabha election in Ludhiana, India, on April 28, 2024. (Photo by Gurpreet Singh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

When Americans go to the polls in November, they’ll line up inside elementary school gyms and church fellowship halls to do their civic duty. But with approximately 1.1 million polling stations necessary for India’s election that kicked off earlier this month, some Indian voters will cast their ballots from more interesting environs. In India’s southern state of Kerala, for example, some voters will participate in the democratic process from a wildlife sanctuary. In the western state of Gujarat? A shipping container.

This is a big year for democracy, with elections in more than 50 countries. But nowhere is democracy bigger than in India, where some 970 million voters could go to the polls before June 1. The election is unlikely to be a nail-biter—Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is widely expected to walk away with a decisive win. But in a contest that has centered on Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda, the proceedings have already been marred by ethnic violence. 

The phased election—the second stage of which concluded Friday—aims to seat the Lok Sabha, the lower chamber of India’s 543-seat parliament directly elected by the voters. (The legislature’s upper chamber, the Rajya Sabha, runs on a different electoral calendar and is elected by state and union territory legislatures, not the populace.) The prime minister is elected by whichever majority party—or coalition of parties—controls the Lok Sabha, meaning that, when voters directly elect their parliamentary representative, they are indirectly selecting their preferred prime minister.

Modi, the two-term incumbent first elected as prime minister in 2014, is pursuing a rare third term as the nominee of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a coalition of the BJP and various smaller regional parties. “The BJP is known more for a kind of Hindu identity politics,” said Dhruva Jaishankar, executive director of the Observer Research Foundation America, the U.S. affiliate of one of India’s top think tanks. 

The BJP’s main national opposition, the Indian National Congress (INC), tends to attract more votes from religious minorities, including India’s Muslim population. In a country that was once more explicitly secular and pluralist, religious divisions now cut to the heart of Indian identity, animating the two parties’ agendas. “How social laws are applied to minority groups— that’s a big issue,” Jaishankar told TMD. The majority of Indian Hindus consider being Hindu—and speaking Hindi—very important to being truly Indian. 

Indeed those divisions have been on full display in recent days as Modi has doubled down on harsh rhetoric about the country’s Muslims, some 14 percent of the population. “[INC] will distribute it among infiltrators,” he said at a rally last week, referring to what he considers wealth redistribution to Indian Muslims. “Do you think your hard-earned money should be given to infiltrators?”

That statement also hints at the parties’ economic differences. “The BJP has recently been saying that the [INC] is too reliant on redistributive policies, like for welfare,” Jaishankar said. The [INC] has said the BJP is too pro-business—too big-business, as well—and made big allegations of crony capitalism.” 

Rahul Gandhi, a high-profile INC leader and Modi rival, leveled such an accusation last week. “Narendra Modi has snatched money from the poor … [and] given it to the billionaires,” he said Friday. “We will give that money to the poor people of India.”

In many cases, races are a head-to-head matchup between the BJP and INC—a binary party dynamic the U.S. political system knows well. But there are exceptions: “There are a very large number of regional parties that often do very well in one or two states,” Jaishankar told TMD. These smaller parties—often adopting regional strategies as opposed to a nationwide campaign—can contest and even win seats from the major parties. But once elected, representatives of these regional parties often join coalitions with the larger parties in parliament. 

Modi, who cut his teeth as a campaigner for a Hindu nationalist organization, has held onto a significant base of Hindu voters—81 percent of the Indian population—by delivering key wins for them. In a particularly on-the-nose example, Modi in January inaugurated a Hindu temple built on the ruins of a historic mosque demolished by mobs in 1992. With the temple’s opening came an uptick in sectarian violence across the country. During his tenure, Modi also introduced an initiative expediting citizenship for members of a number of religious groups that fled Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Notably, Muslims were not on that list, which Modi said was because they were not a religious minority in the three countries. In another controversial move, Modi’s party changed the legal status of Jammu and Kashmir—a majority-Muslim territory that both India and Pakistan claim as their own—reducing the region’s autonomy and bringing it under tighter control by New Delhi.

Though India’s domestic politics are in the spotlight, one area of foreign policy could spell trouble for Modi and the BJP, per Jaishankar: “Being weak on China.” Violent skirmishes along India’s Himalayan border with China in recent years have sparked concerns about Chinese encroachment. “[Modi] has given 1000 Sq Kms of territory to China without a fight,” Rahul Gandhi said in September 2022. Indeed, Modi and U.S. President Joe Biden have worked together in recent years to counter China, though Modi has remained agnostic on some of Biden’s other priorities, like countering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Fraught politics aside, the actual logistics of voting in a country of 1.4 billion are particularly tricky, with the process broken up into seven phases across the various states. The third phase is set to kick off next Tuesday, and everything will wrap up on June 1. Average turnout in the latest phase—which saw more people eligible to cast a ballot than voted in the 2020 U.S. presidential election—clocked in at around 60 percent, down slightly from 2019’s contest. 

The Election Commission of India (ECI)—the independent agency that runs the process—requires a voting booth within two kilometers, or about one mile, of every voter. For this election, that translates into more than a million polling stations. To fulfill that mandate, India’s last election had the EIC establish a polling station in the remote state of Arunachal Pradesh for just one voter and create the world’s highest polling station for a small village nestled in the Himalayan mountains. 

Spreading voting out across weeks eases the logistical and bureaucratic burden, but, “part of the reason is for security purposes,” Jaishankar told TMD. Election officials have already rerun the contest in 11 polling places in the northeastern state of Manipur, where a yearlong violent clash between the larger, majority-Hindu tribal group and the smaller, mostly Christian tribe prompted vandalism and violence on election day. 

Even though the election results won’t be tallied until June 4, Modi’s victory is pretty easy money based on his 75 percent approval rating—making him the most popular world leader currently in power and putting U.S. politicians to shame. In this country, perhaps only Dolly Parton is so universally beloved.

With such strong approval ratings within the country, Modi and his allies are not just hoping for an electoral home run—anything over the 272 seats needed for a majority in the Lok Sabha—but a grand slam: 370 total seats for the BJP, and 400 seats total seats for Modi’s parliamentary coalition. The BJP currently holds 294 seats in parliament and the NDA overall holds a 343-seat majority. Overall support for the BJP has increased, Jaishankar said, but measuring BJP gains as a number of seats remains a difficult endeavor. 

Even if there’s not a clear ceiling, there’s a pretty obvious floor after all of the hype: If Modi and the BJP fail to reach 300 seats, Jaishankar told TMD, that “would be considered a disappointing show.”

Worth Your Time

  • What do you do with a church when it no longer supports a congregation? “The Catholic Church, the largest private real estate owner in the world, faces decisions about what to do with its extensive real estate portfolio,” reported John W. Miller for America magazine. “It’s a shock to see so many abandoned churches in cities across the United States while cathedrals in Europe built in the 11th century are still standing. If they can last 1,000 years in Brussels, Paris and Rome, why can’t they last 100 in Pittsburgh? The age and traditions of Catholicism invite us to believe that churches last forever. ‘You are Peter and on this rock, I will build my church,’ Jesus tells Peter. But Peter is a person, not a building, as a new wave of advocates point out. … For Dr. Christopher Denny, the theologian at St. John’s, the desacralization of a church building is the end point of a gradual process that begins when people stop attending Mass. ‘The process of desacralization begins when people in the community are no longer aware of who is missing,’ he says. ‘When a church closes, it’s depressing, but it’s also a call to witness.’”
  • Republicans need to rediscover environmentalism, Benji Backer wrote for the New York Times. “The fact of the matter is this: We cannot address climate change or solve any other environmental issue without the buy-in and leadership of conservative America,” he argued. “And there are clear opportunities for climate action that conservatives can champion without sacrificing core values, from sustainable agriculture to nuclear energy and the onshoring of clean energy production. … As a member of Gen Z, I believe it’s time for my generation to mobilize around climate solutions that bring both sides to the table—and demand our leaders do the same. Liberals must stop denigrating and abandoning key communities they need to solve the problem, and conservatives must stop denying the problem and take ownership of climate solutions. If the Republican Party wants to expand its coalition, it will need to recruit young voters with a far more pragmatic message.” 

Presented Without Comment

The Hill: Green Party Presidential Candidate Jill Stein Arrested at Pro-Palestine College Protest 

Also Presented Without Comment

President Joe Biden, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner: “Being here is a reminder that folks think what’s going on in Congress is political theater. But that’s not true. If Congress were a theater, they’d have thrown out Lauren Boebert a long time ago.”

Also Also Presented Without Comment

CNN: South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem Defends Book Excerpt Where She Describes Killing Dog and Goat

In the Zeitgeist

Lots of good music is constantly flying under the radar and Charley Crockett’s new album, $10 Cowboy shouldn’t. We particularly liked America, the second song on the new record that came out last week: 

Toeing the Company Line

  • Wendy Lane Cook, our new deputy managing editor, answered your questions—about Tex Mex, crime novels, the Olympics, and more—in April’s Monthly Mailbag
  • In the newsletters: The Dispatch Politics crew broke news about the Republican National Committee’s compromised ground game, Sarah recapped the Supreme Court oral arguments in the Trump immunity case in a bonus edition of The Collision, Jonah highlighted all that we lose when we abandon objective truth, Nick wondered (🔒) why we don’t hear more about the American hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, and Chris predicted (🔒) a closely divided House come 2025. 
  • On the podcasts: Sarah recorded a special solo edition of Advisory Opinions in the wake of the Trump immunity oral arguments, Jonah ruminated on sympathy for Trump and internecine conservative fights on The Remnant, and Victoria spoke to Atlantic writer Derek Thompson about the loneliness crisis on The Dispatch Podcast. Plus, Jamie is joined today by Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, to discuss the tumultuous U.S. relationship with Qatar.
  • On the site over the weekend: Quill Robinson reviewed A Brief History of the Future, Giancarlo Sopo meditated on Marlon Brando’s legacy 100 years after his birth, and Mark Tooley explained the fractures in the United Methodist Church. 
  • On the site today: Emma Rogers explains why Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is so controversial.

Let Us Know

What is your typical polling place? A library? An elementary school?

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.

Peter Gattuso is a reporter for The Morning Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2024, he interned at The Dispatch, National Review, the Cato Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Peter is not helping write TMD, he is probably watching baseball, listening to music on vinyl records, or discussing the Jones Act.