India’s voters are in the midst of the massive, month long process of choosing their next government, via nationwide elections to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. This election has drawn particular international attention – beyond the inherent importance of the political workings of the world’s largest democracy. A slowing economy, popular frustration with the apparent corruption and incompetence of the ruling Congress Party, worry over the simmering feud with Pakistan, and fears over domestic Hindu-Muslim ethnic tensions have thrown the stakes of the election into high relief.

In play are all 543 elected parliamentary seats, and the race is on to be the first party or bloc to reach the 272 seats necessary to form a government. To the Western press, at least, the chaos of this giant election has been framed as a contest between two men: Rahul Gandhi, the would-be successor of current Congress Party Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Narendra Modi, of the right wing, Hindu nationalist-affiliated Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Modi, the current governor of the state of Gujarat in the country’s northwest, appears to be a clear favorite, riding a wave of dissatisfaction as India’s growth has fallen by half, to 5 percent.

India’s voters are in the midst of the massive, month long process of choosing their next government, via nationwide elections to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. This election has drawn particular international attention – beyond the inherent importance of the political workings of the world’s largest democracy. A slowing economy, popular frustration with the apparent corruption and incompetence of the ruling Congress Party, worry over the simmering feud with Pakistan, and fears over domestic Hindu-Muslim ethnic tensions have thrown the stakes of the election into high relief.

In play are all 543 elected parliamentary seats, and the race is on to be the first party or bloc to reach the 272 seats necessary to form a government. To the Western press, at least, the chaos of this giant election has been framed as a contest between two men: Rahul Gandhi, the would-be successor of current Congress Party Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Narendra Modi, of the right wing, Hindu nationalist-affiliated Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Modi, the current governor of the state of Gujarat in the country’s northwest, appears to be a clear favorite, riding a wave of dissatisfaction as India’s growth has fallen by half, to 5 percent. While Modi has taken pains to position himself as a pro-business technocrat, his association with the extremist Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and his widely-acknowledged role in inciting anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat has raised fears both among India’s Muslim minority and international observers. Meanwhile, Gandhi, the great-grandson India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, has run a lackluster campaign that has failed to distance him from the troubles of his coalition.

Those troubles are largely tied to a darkening national mood that has tended to blame incumbents for India’s corruption and often frustrating mismanagement. A major Gallup poll conducted just before voting started on April 7th found numbers that should frighten any official seeking reelection.

Beyond slowed growth, Indian voters have steadily lost optimism for the overall economic outlook. A record one in three Indians nationwide say that the economy is “getting worse” and over half say that their living standards are either stagnating or getting worse. Over half also believe it is a bad time to be looking for a job in their local job market, with only 29 percent responding that now was a good time to be in the job market.

While India’s south has performed better, the northern states have been hit harder by the slowdown. There, just 9 percent feel that the economy is getting better, and a whopping 65 percent say that it is getting worse. This geographical divide also tracks the precipitous fall of Prime Minister Singh’s popularity. While his approval is low across the country – only 27 percent of Indians approve of his job performance, while 40 percent disapprove – it has fallen to new lows in the north, where only 14 percent approve.

These economic divides largely explain the resurgence of the BJP, and Narendra Modi in particular. Modi’s northwestern Gujarat state, which he has led since 2001, is largely considered a glimmering economic success story in an otherwise faltering country. Between 2001 and 2010 the state grew at over 16 percent, compared to 8.2 percent over the previous decade, and Modi has expertly parlayed these numbers in an electoral identity as “India’s CEO.”

But, as many observers have pointed out, Modi’s rise also comes with dark side – specifically, his coded, and not-so-coded, appeals to Hindu supremacy and anti-Muslim bigotry. In addition to a long history of Modi and his key advisors trafficking in violent rhetoric towards Muslims and domestic opponents – who he has taken to labeling “Pakistani spies” – he also presided over the 2002 Gujarati riots. Nearly 1,200 people, mostly Muslims, were killed by Hindu rioters while state authorities stood by. For his role in these riots, Modi was denied a visa by the US State Department in 2005.

Interestingly, the fatigue with the Congress Party, combined with mistrust of the BJP, has opened space for smaller opposition parties in an unprecedented way. In particular, the newcomer Aam Aadmi Party (“Common Man Party”) has positioned itself as a viable opposition alternative to the BJP. Rooted in an anti-corruption platform, Aam Aadmi took control of the government of New Delhi in its first electoral outing, and analysts predicted that the party could win up to 50 seats in parliament. Since then, polling shows its support falling significantly, but Aam Aadmi could still play a large role in the formation of the next government.

Amidst these battles of personality and ideology, the sheer magnitude of the electoral undertaking should not be forgotten. Voting accommodations for over 814 million eligible voters must be organized, in nine stages lasting over a month. The effort requires some 11 million government workers, 930,000 polling stations – an 11.9 percent increase over the 2009 elections. Voting started on April 7th and will not finish until May 12th. And once the polls are closed, the work of forming a new government capable of leading all of India will be just beginning.