India just elected its chief executive. Here's how they do things differently than the US

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is greeted by supporters as he arrives at Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters in New Delhi, India, Tuesday. Indian voters turned out in record numbers despite heatwaves and cyclones to elect their chief executive.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is greeted by supporters as he arrives at Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters in New Delhi, India, Tuesday. Indian voters turned out in record numbers despite heatwaves and cyclones to elect their chief executive. (Manish Swarup, Associated Press)

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SALT LAKE CITY — It was late May, and a heat wave held a tight grip over New Delhi.

The India Meteorological Department had issued a category red warning for areas in the northwest, including the capital, where the temperature touched 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The conditions remained persistent until election day, May 25, and despite the deadly heat as well as the cyclones in the east, 624 million voters cast their ballot to select the next leader of India, the largest democracy in the world.

The results are out: Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a third five-year term. After his win, in a post on X, Modi wrote, "Happy to receive (a) call from my friend President Joe Biden."

"Deeply value his warm words of felicitations and his appreciation for the Indian democracy," Modi said. In his 10 years as prime minister, he has been credited with maintaining stable governance, launching welfare programs, and buffing up India's image on the global stage.

But Modi's election win may have also revealed some vulnerability. As The Associated Press reported, this is the first time since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, that the party couldn't win a majority on its own. So, Modi's party entered a coalition with other conservative Indian political alliances to win 294 seats in parliament. The opposition alliance, the INDIA coalition, captured a total of 232 seats. Modi's party, BJP, has been criticized for its Hindu nationalist agenda, but that's not what hurt the party at the ballot box. The vote had more to do with rising joblessness and inflation.

In the days leading up to the big day in New Delhi, the catchphrase "Modi ki guarantee," or Modi's guarantee, appeared on ads across social media, on large posters plastered all around the city on billboards and bus stops, and on stickers. One of Modi's guarantees is to transform India into a developed nation by 2047. Many apartment and car owners installed large flags with BJP's lotus logo on their properties ahead of the election.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters shout slogans as they listen to Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the party headquarters in New Delhi, India, Tuesday.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters shout slogans as they listen to Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the party headquarters in New Delhi, India, Tuesday. (Photo: Manish Swarup, Associated Press)

Modi himself appeared at a rally in the southwestern part of town and reminded voters why his "Nation First" agenda deserves to win. "The government of India is spending billions of rupees on the connectivity infrastructure in Delhi," he said at the rally on May 22.

The excitement hadn't entirely died down after Election Day. In the U.S., voters wear an "I Voted" sticker. But I observed a different tell-tale sign of Indian voters who successfully cast their ballot: The top of the index finger is marked with an ink stain that doesn't wash off for at least a few weeks. This practice has been in place for more than seven decades and is seen as an effective way to prevent voter fraud.

One of my high school friends, Rishabh G., 26, had the ink mark when he came over for chai a day after the election. Who did you vote for? I asked. BJP, of course, he said with a smile. He has supported them since he could vote. During our short conversation on elections in the U.S. and India, he highlighted another major difference. His wallet contained his voter ID, issued by the Election Commission of India. The card contained all his details and a photo of him. At least 35 American states require voters to present some sort of identification, but the Federal Election Commission isn't responsible for issuing anything.

Here are some other noteworthy differences in how the two countries conduct their elections.

Differences in Indian and American elections

Electoral system: The Indian prime minister isn't directly elected by the people. The president of India appoints the prime minister but has to maintain the support of the Lok Sabha, or the lower parliamentary chamber, whose ministers are up for reelection every five years. Meanwhile, in the U.S., citizens vote for electors, and the electoral college then votes for the president and vice president.

Term length and limits: Modi will remain the prime minister as long as the lower chamber and the Indian public approves of him. He is appointed during a Lok Sabha election twice in a decade. An American president can only serve two four-year terms, as written in the Constitution.

Eligibility criteria: The Indian prime minister and the American president are required to be citizens of their country and at least 35 years in age. Meanwhile, the Indian candidate also has to be a member of the parliament.

Campaigning requirements: The Election Commission in India imposes strict limits and regulations on the campaign's duration and spending, capped at around $85,000 for lower chamber candidates. At 48 hours before the polling in a district, a "silence period" goes into effect that bans any official campaigning to give voters breathing room to make their decision. By comparison, American elections are longer. Plus, political parties and super PACs face fewer restrictions around raising or spending money.

Political parties: In the Indian 2024 election, a record 744 parties participated. In the U.S., the Democratic and Republican parties dominate elections, while others are grouped under "third parties."

Voting mechanisms: Electronic voting machines were introduced to Indian elections in the 1990s. India does offer mail-in voting, but the eligibility criteria and use are much more limited compared to the U.S.

American states have different voter laws. Some deploy simple paper ballots, but others use more technologically advanced options like optical scan paper ballots and ballot marking devices.

Violence: Instances of violence in India around election season aren't unheard of. This year was no different, where there were many instances where armed men attempted to break the electronic voting machines, as the Los Angeles Times reported. While the events of Jan. 6, 2021, are still fairly recent, such incidents are isolated in the U.S.

Media influence: Both the Indian and American media landscape have a significant influence on voters, but Indian news channels often have to navigate through the country's linguistic, cultural and religious diversity, which is why local networks play a more critical role. It's worth noting that social media in India and the U.S. has played a role in chipping away at traditional media's power. Modi's party created networks on WhatsApp and extensively used it for its campaign.

Political arguments: Rallies held by Indian politicians are often loud, expressive, and sometimes invite confrontation. Security is high at such events. American rallies are much more structured and media-centered, but the polarization still appears through divisive words in debates and speeches.

India has chosen the path of Modi 3.0. Countries like Russia, Finland and El Salvador have also recently voted for a leader, while other nations are gearing up to make their pick in the next six months. The presidential election in Iran is also piquing interest since it follows the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi last month. At least 80 candidates have signed up to run in the election scheduled for June 28.

U.S. voters will grapple with their Top 2 choices — former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden — until the general election in November.

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Gitanjali Poonia
Gitanjali Poonia is an early career journalist who writes about politics, culture and climate change. Driven by her upbringing in New Delhi, India, she takes pride in reporting on underserved and under-covered communities. She holds a bachelor’s in electronic media from San Francisco State University and a master’s in journalism from Columbia Journalism School.


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