Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters are attending a rally by Himanta Biswa Sarma, Chief Minister of the northeastern state of Assam (not pictured), for the upcoming Lok Sabha election in Nagaon District, Assam, India, on April 4, 2024. (Photo by Anuwar Hazarika/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
CNN  — 

The world’s biggest election kicks into gear next week when the first ballots are cast in India’s mammoth national polls, considered the most consequential in decades with the potential to shape the country’s future.

Nearly 1 billion people are eligible to decide whether to grant Prime Minister Narendra Modi a rare third consecutive term in office and extend the 10-year rule of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Under Modi, India has become the world’s fastest growing major economy, pushing the country of 1.4 billion people to near-superpower status.

But India has also become increasingly polarized along religious lines and critics say another five-year term will give Modi’s right-wing BJP a mandate to continue its policies that have transformed the country from a secular republic to a Hindu-first nation.

Here’s what you need to know about the largest election in human history:

How does India vote?

India’s national elections are a giant exercise in democracy and logistics that take over a month to complete.

About 968 million people are eligible to vote — more than the populations of the United States, the European Union and Russia combined.

Given the size of the electorate, there isn’t a single date when everyone will vote. Instead, polling will unfold over seven phases around the country, beginning on April 19 and ending on June 1. All the votes from the country’s 28 states and eight union territories will be counted and results released on June 4.

Under a multi-party, first-past-the-post system, Indians will vote to fill 543 of 545 seats in the lower house of parliament, called the Lok Sabha, with two other seats nominated by the country’s president.

The party with the majority will form a government and appoint one of its winning candidates as prime minister.

TOPSHOT - People register to vote at a polling station during India's general election in Hyderabad on April 11, 2019. India's mammoth six-week general election kicked off April 11, with polling stations in the country's northeast among the first to open. (Photo by NOAH SEELAM / AFP) (Photo by NOAH SEELAM/AFP via Getty Images)

Who are the contenders?

Modi and his BJP remain hugely popular and he is widely expected to secure another five years in power.

The 73-year-old was first elected prime minister in 2014 with a roaring majority on a ticket of development and anti-corruption. He is credited with implementing welfare and social reforms, and easily secured a second term in 2019, this time on a more apparent platform of Hindu nationalism.

In that election more than 67% of Indians cast their ballot — the highest voter turnout in the country’s history.

The main challenger to the BJP is the Indian National Congress, which has governed the country for much of the 77 years since independence but now finds itself in the doldrums.

In an effort to prevent another Modi win, the Congress formed an alliance with other opposition leaders, including major regional parties. The Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, or INDIA, launched its campaign late last month on a platform of “saving democracy.”

Political scion Rahul Gandhi is the face of the Congress party but other key figures include popular leader of the Aam Aadmi Party and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal.

There are also regional heavyweights such as the West Bengal chief minister and All India Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee and the south’s Tamil Nadu chief minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi Stalin, who will be vying to block a BJP takeover in their respective states where Modi is yet to break through.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses his supporters during an election campaign rally in Pushkar on April 6, 2024, ahead of the country's upcoming general elections. (Photo by HIMANSHU SHARMA / AFP) (Photo by HIMANSHU SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images)

How strong is the opposition?

The INDIA bloc has been beset by infighting and is yet to put forward its candidate for prime minister. Analysts say it is struggling to match the kind of star quality and appeal projected by Modi.

The opposition is also under pressure from what it says is a campaign by the BJP to weaken Modi’s opponents.

Several prominent members of the opposition, including Delhi chief minister Kejriwal, have been arrested or investigated by state agencies in moves decried as political by their parties. The Congress had its bank accounts frozen by federal tax authorities and said it was asked to pay a further $218 million in taxes.

The BJP has denied political interference.

Meanwhile, another victory for Modi would cement his place as one of India’s most important and longest-serving leaders.

Modi’s party and its allies are aiming to win more than 400 seats in the Lok Sabha — giving them enough votes to change India’s constitution. That figure will also improve its absolute majority secured in 2019 when the BJP won 303 seats, to the Congress party’s 52.

NEW DELHI, INDIA - APRIL 5: Congress senior party leader Rahul Gandhi addresses during the release of the party manifesto ahead of Lok Sabha elections 2024 on April 5, 2024 in New Delhi, India, India. Congress promises legal guarantee to MSP, guarantees national minimum wage at 400 per day, among others.(Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

What are the main issues?

India is the world’s largest democracy but over a decade of BJP rule, analysts say the populist Modi has tightened his grip on its democratic institutions.

Minorities, especially the country’s 200 million Muslims, say they have been persecuted under the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist policies.

And Modi has been accused of silencing his critics including cracking down on India’s independent media. In the annual World Press Freedom Index, India has dropped from 140th in 2014 — the year Modi came to power — to 161 out of 180 nations in last year’s list.

From demolishing Islamic monuments, to renaming cities founded by ancient Muslim rulers and revising history textbooks, Modi’s rule has been a seismic shift for India, from its secular founding values to that of a Hindu-first nation. Analysts say another BJP term will push India further along this road.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Indian National Congress (INC) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) Flags are seen together at a Flag Printing market in Old Delhi, India on 27 March 2021. (Photo by Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Modi’s supporters point to his economic record: India is poised to become a 21st-century powerhouse as its economy rapidly expands. They say his presence on the world stage — including hosting the G20 — has cemented the country as a modern global power, along with a history-making moon landing.

Modi has also delivered on many of his key promises, with his crowning achievement the inauguration of the controversial Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir, a Hindu temple in the holy city of Ayodhya that was built on the site of the destroyed Babri mosque.

But while India’s economy is rising, the world’s most populous country has failed to generate enough jobs for the millions of young people struggling to enter the workforce. Unemployment among 20- to 24-year-olds was a staggering 44.4% at the end of 2023.

Farmers have also emerged as the biggest threat to the ruling party in recent years, repeatedly taking to the streets to demand stronger protection of their economic welfare including higher fixed prices for their crops.

Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about 55% of India’s population and farmers have previously had success strong-arming Modi into repealing unpopular agriculture policies.

Party symbols and voting at 15,000 feet

India’s election is believed to be the world’s most expensive, even outstripping US presidential elections. In 2019, political partiescandidates and regulatory bodies spent up to $8.6 billion, according to the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies. This year, spending is expected to surge past that.

From the high peaks of the Himalayas to the remote forests of India’s central states, votes are cast electronically across more than 1 million polling stations. Some 15 million election workers will be deployed, traveling via road, boat, camel, train and helicopter to reach every Indian voter.

At 15,256 feet (4,650 meters), Tashigang, a village in the far northern state of Himachal Pradesh on the border with China, was the world’s highest polling station when its residents voted in 2022 state government elections.

In 2019, more than 8,000 candidates contested the election. This year, candidates are still being announced, but more than 2,700 parties will fight it out for seats in the Lok Sabha, including six national and more than 70 state parties.

Indian election officials carry Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) and other election material, followed by paramilitary personnel, along the bank of the Brahmaputra river, in Lohore Sapori, some 280 kms from Guwahati in the northeastern state of Assam on April 10, 2019. - India is holding a general election to be held over nearly six weeks starting on April 11, when hundreds of millions of voters will cast ballots in the world's biggest democracy. (Photo by Biju BORO / AFP) (Photo by BIJU BORO/AFP via Getty Images)

Each party has a symbol allotted to them by the Election Commission that appears on the ballots — helping the dozens of parties to differentiate themselves, while making it easier for voters to make their choice in a country where around a quarter of the population is illiterate.

They are everyday objects like a ceiling fan, a comb and a mango.

The ruling BJP’s symbol is a lotus, while the Congress party is a raised, open-palmed hand. Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (or the Common Man’s Party) is a broom, representing its origins in an anti-corruption street movement.