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Women wait to cast their votes in Muzaffarnagar, India. Photo: Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The world's largest-ever exercise in democracy began today, the first of 7 election days over the next 5 weeks as India's 900 million registered voters cast their ballots.

The big picture: Prime Minister Narendra Modi was swept into power 5 years ago promising to turbocharge India's economy and flex its muscles on the world stage. This election represents a referendum on him, Alyssa Ayres of the Council on Foreign Relations writes for Axios Expert Voices:

  • "While India has seen comparatively good economic growth, it has not created enough jobs for the bulging youth demographic, and unemployment has reached a 45-year high."
  • "Rural voters, who make up more than 66% of the population and depend overwhelmingly on agriculture, have been hurt by a collapse in food prices and poor rainfall."
  • "Yet Modi may have shored up support among voters focused on terrorism and national security with his decision to order airstrikes in response to a recent suicide bombing claimed by a Pakistan-based terrorist group."

Between the lines: There are big questions about the intelligence failures that made that attack possible, and the effectiveness of India's response, but the episode “speaks to precisely the attributes Modi has been touting — strength, decisiveness and leadership," the Carnegie Endowment's Milan Vaishnav said.

Modi has remained India's most popular politician despite the mixed economic record, and the current nationalist fervor only plays into his hands. Even the opposition Congress Party acknowledges that Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be the largest single party in the next parliament, Vaishnav says.

He says that leaves 3 scenarios:

  1. The most likely outcome is that the BJP will be unable to match the 2014 landslide in which they won an outright majority, but will perform well enough to form a governing coalition with relative ease.
  2. The BJP and its electoral allies could even ride their current momentum to an outright majority, giving Modi another massive mandate.
  3. There's also a chance (Vaishnav puts it at around 15%) that the BJP loses enough seats to make it extremely difficult to form a coalition.
    • In that scenario, smaller parties could say they'll only join a BJP government if Modi is replaced with someone less hardline, "and frankly less popular," Vaishnav says.
    • Modi and the BJP might actually prefer to sit in opposition in such a scenario, waiting for a government consisting of "a rickety hodgepodge of opposition parties” to implode, Vaishnav adds.

What to watch: The election will unfurl in stages for security and logistical reasons, so votes won't actually be counted until May 23.

  • In the meantime, Vaishnav says to watch youth turnout — younger voters are more likely to back the BJP — and opposition unity. There are cross-party alliances in place intended to stop the BJP, but some are looking fragile.

The bottom line: "Conventional wisdom sees Modi likely to return to power. But Indian voters have delivered surprises before. With an election of this scale and complexity, nothing’s over until the last ballot is counted," Ayres writes.

Worth noting: This could be the first election in India's history where women make up the majority of the electorate. That's reflected in the main parties' platforms, which include increased social spending and promises of greater political representation for women.

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