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Millions Head To The Polls In Indian State Elections


In, India millions of people have been going to the polls for the past five weeks. That's right - five weeks. This is a massive electoral exercise there. Now, these are not national elections. They're just in a handful of states. But let's hear why there's a lot on the line for India's leader. NPR's Julie McCarthy is in New Delhi. Julie, good morning.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Well, it sounds like a part of the story that you're covering here is really the electoral process itself. Am I right that one state is holding seven different stages of voting?

MCCARTHY: Well, that's right. I think oftentimes we gloss over the scale of India 'cause it's easy to do. But here's some perspective, David. The combined population of the five states who are voting is 246 million people. That's three quarters of the population of the United States.

GREENE: That's amazing.

MCCARTHY: Yeah. And the biggest of these states sits right next door. That's Uttar Pradesh. That's the one you're referring to with its 200 million people. The voting is staggered in seven phases. And the final phase of voting ends today, at the sort of classic Indian clash campaign, which is to say lots of mudslinging and personality-driven politics.

GREENE: All right. Well, somewhere hidden in the mud, there must be some actual issues here.

MCCARTHY: (Laughter) Yes. And one of the big ones, I would say the main one going into it, was Prime Minister Narendra Modi's controversial currency swap. You might remember last November, he pulled all the high-value notes out of circulation in India, which pulled most of the cash out of the economy. But Modi cleverly cast this exercise as a crackdown on corrupt rich people who had stashed cash and didn't report it to the tax man.

And he struck a deep chord. The struggling middle class and India's masses of poor applauded. They are sick of corruption and sick of what they perceive as the rich getting away with things. And with the passage of time, money has returned to circulation. And voters may have forgotten how painful it was. But this currency gamble made these state contests a referendum on Modi.

GREENE: Modi, who I guess is hoping that Indians do forget the pain from that whole currency crisis. So, I mean, is that issue really alone defining him?

MCCARTHY: No. You know, here's a guy who's tried to make himself the face of local aspirations. And what do we mean by that? It's development. Uttar Pradesh lacks electricity, jobs, schools. But the young Turks who are in the opposition say, wait a minute. Modi hasn't delivered as prime minister on jobs. And they paint his campaigning, his kind of hectic campaigning as a desperate ploy for votes. So you get this tit-for-tat in this campaign.

And most rallies really avoided serious issues like caste and the discrimination that comes with caste. The parties did raise violence against women. But they sparred over how bad it was. And three of these five states are in northern India, David, where there's some of the most polluted air in the world and virtually nothing is said about it.

GREENE: Julie, this is a huge country, huge economy. The United States, other countries pay a lot of attention to what happens here. I mean, if Modi loses these state elections, his party at least, is it a huge setback?

MCCARTHY: Well, the economy is growing at a clip. But the distribution of wealth is uneven. There's a lot of people without jobs. However, foreign money is coming back. The stock market is roaring. So there's general optimism. And Modi's party could benefit.

But if Modi doesn't do well in these elections, it could cast a shadow over his fundamental project, which is Make in India, calls for foreign investors to come in and manufacture here. Important reforms like taxes could stall. And it could also deepen uncertainty about the U.S.-India relationship with the new Trump administration. So there's a lot riding on these elections.

GREENE: OK. Speaking to NPR's Julie McCarthy in New Delhi. Julie, thanks so much, as always.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROY HARGROVE'S "I'M NOT SO SURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.