THE STARTER’S gun has been fired on the biggest democratic exercise on Earth: an Indian general election. The Election Commission has set out a schedule for the country’s 900m-odd eligible voters to select a new parliament, in seven stages, with results due on May 23rd. The process, despite electronic voting and an increase in polling stations, to 1m, is lumbering. The scale is intimidating. Some 84m Indians—a whole Germany—have become eligible to vote since the previous poll, in 2014.
To young Indians, economic opportunity counts above all. Five years ago Narendra Modi clothed a reputation as a Hindu firebrand in an inclusive message about jobs and progress: sabka saath, sabka vikas, or “all together, development for all”. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power.
Yet Mr Modi’s record is patchy. Growth of 6.6% might sound good, but it has not generated enough work. His promise of 10m new jobs a year has proven hollow. Unemployment is close to half-century highs.
In the countryside, the strains are severe. Five years ago India’s 230m farmers opted for Mr Modi in droves. Yet in office, he eased imports of food and curbed exports to bring prices down. That was good for urban consumers, but hurt farmers, many of whom protested.
Then, just over two years ago, the government voided over four-fifths of banknotes in circulation. The move was supposedly to curb corruption and tax evasion. In practice it hit lowly trades, from farmers to barbers, whose receipts are in cash. Rural Muslims and lower-caste Hindus have faced growing violence from vigilantes out to lynch people suspected of slaughtering cows, which are sacred to Hindus, or just acting above their station. Mr Modi, to whom inclusiveness does not come naturally, has often met such outrages with silence.
Congress, the once-lame opposition, has found new pep. Late last year it won three state elections in the BJP’s Hindi-speaking heartland. Even its 48-year-old president, Rahul Gandhi, a political dynast with the perennial air of a management trainee, has shown leadership, landing punches on Mr Modi over the economy and murky procurement deals.
But what a difference a few air strikes make. Mr Modi has changed the dynamics of the race with his response to the deaths of 40 paramilitary police in a suicide bombing in Kashmir on February 14th that was claimed by Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), a terrorist group based in Pakistan.
The chattering classes of New Delhi, who despise Mr Modi and his coterie as cynical rabble-rousers, hold that view reluctantly. They level (justified) criticism at the prime minister for dangerously escalating matters with a rival nuclear power by sending warplanes to bomb undisputed Pakistani territory—a first (for either side) since 1971. They level scorn at government claims to have killed hundreds of JeM terrorists, when the presumed target, an empty madrasa, may (intentionally or otherwise) not even have been hit. They say Mr Modi’s adventurism stands in contrast to the statesmanship of his Pakistani counterpart, Imran Khan, who swiftly handed back a downed Indian pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman. And (again justifiably) they worry that crucial national-security decisions are being made by only a tiny band around Mr Modi; even the defence minister is said to be out of the loop.
To many voters, though, none of this matters. Mr Varthaman, whose bewhiskered face has popped up on billboards, is a national hero. At weekends enthusiastic crowds flock to the new war memorial behind India Gate. Jingoism abounds. The national cricket team has taken to playing in army-camouflage caps. Cabin attendants with Air India, the state airline, are required to proclaim Jai Hind—“Victory for India”—after every announcement. They must do this “after a slight pause and [with] much fervour”.
Mr Modi is in his element again. Settling scores, he says proudly, is “my habit”. That is a challenge not just to jihadists whom the prime minister has promised to “go below the seven seas to find”. It is a dog-whistle to bigots looking for other supposed traitors, among them the harmless Kashmiri fruit-sellers recently beaten up in Lucknow.
Mr Modi knows that even Indians at the bottom of the pile, exposed to social media and tub-thumping television channels, are patriots. Many are surely warming to him. Namumkin ab mumkin hai: “the impossible is now possible” is the new government slogan. Mr Modi, for one, is not writing himself off.