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    Nearly a billion Indians head to the polls ahead of six-week elections

    A woman shows her tattooed finger to prove she voted outside a polling station in Parbatsar, Rajasthan, on Friday Photo: HIMANSHU SHARMA/AFP

    Among the rows of colorful T-shirts, flags and other election-themed trinkets on display at New Delhi's Sadar Bazaar, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) merchandise stands out from the rest.

    < p>The bustling market is a one-stop shop political paraphernalia, and as the first round of six-week voting opens on Friday, shopkeepers say their best-selling items are anything related to longtime Prime Minister and BJP leader Narendra Modi.

    “Products Preferred” with Modi's face on it is obvious: almost every BJP item is expected to have his picture on it,” said shop owner Tauseef Khan.

    Other most sought-after BJP trinkets include T-shirts, masks and saffron caps emblazoned with “Ab Ki Baar 400 Par” (over 400 seats this time), a reference to the party's parliamentary goal in these elections or “NaMo Again” – Mr. on Modi.

    It is a sign of the BJP's dominance over the political landscape in the world's most populous country, as well as the almost cult-like respect accorded its leader, Mr. Modi.

    Since he came to power. In 2014, the former Gujarat chief minister increased his influence on Indian politics and culture, reshaping the constitutionally secular country around a controversial right-wing nationalist agenda catering to the Hindu majority.

    Critics have raised concerns about Mr. Modi's authoritarian tendencies, under As a result, repression of opposition and civil society voices is becoming increasingly common.

    However, his strategy paid off: The BJP again won a resounding majority in 2019 and now controls more than half of India's states.

    BJP voters demonstrate their support for Narendra Modi in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh. Photo: Manish Swarup/AP WhatsApp Campaign

    The party is widely expected to win this year's elections, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi likely to be re-elected to a third consecutive five-year term.

    Behind this success is the enormous electoral machine built by the BJP, which is believed to be the largest political party in the world, with some 180 million members.

    Constructed into a network of state, district and local units, the party mobilizes huge armies volunteers and grassroots activists, some of whom may target as few as 30 voters.

    With BJP representatives on virtually every street in many regions, it can carry out relentless door-to-door canvassing and use social media such as WhatsApp groups to disseminate messages to specific communities.

    To achieve near-total coverage of billions of voters across three million square meters of land – from the world's tallest polling booth at 15,256 feet (4,650 metres) in the Himalayan mountains to a polling station in a remote village along a river on the Bangladesh border – the BJP knows every little bit counts.

    A worker displays Modi's wares in Ahmedabad Photo: Amit Dave/REUTERS Drugs and freebies

    In Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous region In a state of more than 200 million people and 80 parliamentary seats, BJP activist Ajay Gupta began his election campaign at 7 on Thursday morning.

    Dressed in bright saffron-colored clothes, including an orange scarf with the party logo – the Hindu lotus symbolizing peace and prosperity – he spends the morning walking from house to house in the Railway Road area of ​​Meerut.< /p>

    Whenever someone answers his knock, he politely asks for support for Mr. Modi and gifts a BJP flag.

    “We go to every house and seek votes for Modi,” he said.< /p>

    Mr Gupta's target from his bosses is to visit about 100 households before 10 am. “We don't want to disturb people after they have left for work,” he added.

    Having completed his morning campaigning, Gupta meets his colleagues on a street corner to review the next day's list.During the day, he visits the party office to give updates to his seniors, which are then passed down the chain.

    “We are straightforward in our assessments. We tell the booth staff how many of them will vote for us and how many may vote against us,” he said. “Feedback is being circulated in WhatsApp groups associated with the country's top leadership.”

    However, this election machine is not without flaws.

    A record number of bribes have been seized in the run-up to the election, ranging from cash and precious metals to alcohol and drugs, worth more than £440 million, it was revealed this week.

    India's Election Commission said on Monday that the largest the total changed hands in two BJP-ruled states.

    Gujarat – Mr Modi's home state – leads in seizures of drugs used as election bribes, with Rajasthan leading the way. a list of “free gifts” promised to voters in exchange for their support.

    Modi supporters – holding cardboard cutouts of the BJP leader – campaign in Chennai, southern India Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP “Everybody votes for Modi »

    The relationship between the BJP and leading businessmen such as billionaires such as Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani has also been criticized.

    The party's use of opaque campaign finance mechanisms such as electoral bonds has also been criticized . recently ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court due to a lack of transparency.

    On the streets, however, volunteer BJP activists are confident that none of this will affect the bottom line.

    “That's partly because [Mr Modi] has changed millions of lives through his welfare schemes such as free toilets and subsidized gas connections, and at the same time he takes care of the religious aspirations of Hindus,” Mr Gupta said.

    “Our assessment after the extended door-to-door campaign is that everyone is voting for Modi.”

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