STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And this is the final day of voting in a parliamentary election in India. More than 500 million voters have cast ballots. So far, that's a 66 percent turnout, which if that number holds up, would be the highest ever in the world's largest democracy.
Economic development emerged as the key issue. It was also a battle for the direction of India as a secular state. And we're going to talk about all this with NPR's Julie McCarthy, who's on the line from Delhi. Hi, Julie.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Hi.
INSKEEP: OK. So, nine days of voting end today. How did the campaign end?
MCCARTHY: Well, it was very spirited. It was noisy and it was vituperative, I guess is the word. Nurendra Modi, who is this controversial chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, dominated this election season, Steve. And he ended it slamming what he calls the mother-son government. That's a reference to Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul. He's the presumptive heir to the family political dynasty, and he's the vice president of the ruling Congress Party. And Modi told the crowds in the ancient city of Varanasi, where he's seeking a seat: until you end dynastic politics, nothing would improve. The Gandhis have been at the helm of most governments since India's independence in 1947. Now, Rahul Gandhi closed this nearly six-week-long campaign Saturday by saying that the BJP only wants to divide people.
INSKEEP: Oh, the BJP, that's Modi's party. Now, what does Gandhi mean by saying they're just trying to divide people?
MCCARTHY: Well, Modi is itself a self-declared Hindu nationalist, and he's regarded with deep suspicion by members of India's very sizable Muslim community. And he's got a take-no-prisoner style on the stump. He openly mocks his opponents. He's also locked horns this past week with the election commission that kept him out a predominantly Muslim area, citing security reasons.
INSKEEP: Well, I guess we should mention that Muslims have reasons to call Modi a divisive figure, because he was chief minister in a large Indian state when there were Hindu-Muslim riots. Wasn't there ethnic violence erupting again during this campaign?
MCCARTHY: There was. And what you could say in some respects, Steve, is the ghosts of those religious riots from 2002 were haunting this election. And the Congress Party blamed Modi for the violence that erupted in Assam two weeks ago. Some 30 people, mostly women and children - all Muslim - were killed. And a separatist tribal group in that tea-making state, known as Bodos, are believed to have deliberately targeted Muslims. Now, the Bodos say the Muslims encroach on their ancestral land. The Muslims say they were attacked because they didn't support a Bodo candidate. But the northeast is this cauldron of different ethnic and religious groups, and that includes immigrants from Bangladesh. And just before this attack, Modi stirred controversy when he said, quote, "infiltrators from Bangladesh will have to go back." The remark was called rhetoric that risked demonizing Assam's Muslims and inciting violence. Violence did erupt, related or unrelated to that statement. But Modi's remark is that sort of talk that makes Muslims and others in India nervous, that India's intricate religious balance could come unglued.
INSKEEP: Well, let me just ask you, Julie McCarthy, because India in the past has taken great pride in being a secular state. It's a majority-Hindu state. It has never been an explicitly Hindu state or explicitly for any particular religion. Is that consensus holding for the most part? Do you sense that most Indians want their country to remain secular?
MCCARTHY: Yes, I think they do. But in some ways, the campaign has been cast as secular versus religious. Are we going to be freewheeling capitalists of the sort that has spurred China, or are we going to be bound up in a truculent bureaucracy? So, you have these two tracks. You have economics and you have this whole anxiety over secularism. But I think there's no question that the majority of Indians want their state to remain very solidly secular.
INSKEEP: And how strong has the economy been in the last couple of years under the ruling Congress Party?
MCCARTHY: The growth in India has been cut in half in the last five years. And the Congress Party's management of the economy is a major reason why Modi has traction. He's the pro-business, pro-development candidate. Congress has also faced evidence of mega-corruption scams, while ordinary citizens are suffering from that slow growth. And the Congress Party also, it must be said, Steve, shot themselves in the foot with social snobbery. Some of their ranks mocked Modi as the son of a tea server, and Modi turned that to his advantage, and he proudly aligned himself with the tea wallahs of India and made himself to appear to be the voice of the common man. And you know from your time in Pakistan, Steve, how important the tea man really is.
INSKEEP: Absolutely. Julie, thanks very much.
MCCARTHY: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Go have some tea. That's NPR's Julie McCarthy in New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.