Indian politics is a seemingly complicated affair. Indian elections have mostly been fought and won on regional and local issues, with votes along caste and clan-based lines.
Since the 1990s, when the virtual single-party rule of the Congress Party came to an end, the key to power in New Delhi has been held by more than two dozen small regional parties.
In this election cycle, all that has changed. For the first time in Indian history, voters have been presented with two distinct choices. This time, hundreds of millions of voters across India have found real reasons to cast their ballots.
The last ten years of the Congress Party's rule have been marred by corruption scandals, slowed growth, declining foreign investment, lawlessness, rising inflation and foreign-policy missteps. Almost all opinion polls seem to show widespread dissatisfaction with the government.
After a decade, the Congress Party cannot sell itself as a credible agent of change to discontented voters. The Congress Party had hoped to win these parliamentary elections on the strength of its welfare programs, but even the politics of freebies failed to avert a jarring defeat in state-level elections, held in December 2013.
Sensing the general mood, the Congress Party is not even trying to run the campaign on its record of governance. Rather, it is putting its faith in Rahul Gandhi (age 43), the fourth generation heir-apparent of the Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty. He is pitted against Narendra Modi (age 63), the rival Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] candidate.
Narendra Modi has an impressive track record. He has run the western Indian state of Gujarat, but in the power circles of New Delhi, is considered an outsider. Modi has, however, run a successful grass-roots campaign -- upsetting existing political equations.
Modi, however, has an "Achilles heel." He is unacceptable to Indian Muslims, who constitute over 15% of the electorate. His opponents charge him with complicity in a 2002 Hindu-Muslim riot in Gujarat. The charges have never been proven in the courts, including the Supreme Court of India, but Indian Muslims hold him accountable, nonetheless.
The strategy of Rahul Gandhi's Congress Party has been to go after India's Muslim voting bloc, and has presented itself as the only political force capable of stopping Modi from coming to power. It mainly hopes to form the next government first by getting the Muslim votes, then cobbling together an alliance with smaller regional and caste-based parties.
The most senior Imam of Delhi in his Friday sermon issued a "fatwa" [religious opinion] calling upon faithful Muslims to vote en bloc in favor of the Congress Party.
In the same spirit, the leading London-based news magazine, The Economist, issued a fatwa of its own. In an editorial entitled, "Can anyone stop Narendra Modi?" The Economist called Modi a "divisive man" and accused him of "clinging to the anti-Muslim vote."
Narendra Modi (r) consoles the family of a victim of the terrorist bombing that hit a campaign rally held for him in Patna, India, on Oct. 27, 2013. Six people were killed and 85 injured in the attack, for which police suspect the group Indian Mujahideen is responsible. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)
The media coverage elsewhere in Europe has been even less flattering. Just this week the leading German daily, Frankfurter Rundschau, called Modi the "Devil."
Why do supposedly liberal media, such as The Economist and the Frankfurter Rundschau smear people with whom they disagree, instead of presenting readers with well-reasoned arguments?
And why do supposedly liberal media support a candidate backed by a religiously extreme, authoritarian movement??
Outside his political party, Modi is largely a political pariah also in India. Shunned by the mainstream media and liberal intelligentsia, Modi has found a new medium to bring home his message: social media. His foot soldiers are disparagingly called the "Internet Hindus" -- young (age 18-25), tech-savvy Indians, who passionately defend their candidate, keep the heat on his rivals and, in "real time," counter every opposing argument with social media content.
Modi's BJP is not averse to the idea of promising freebies to secure votes, but BJP's promise of delivering high economic growth by cutting government regulations and ending "tax terrorism" after a decade-long policy paralysis has found takers in the business community and the middle class.
A series of opinion polls have predicted Modi's victory in these elections, but the final result on May 16th is anyone's guess.
Regardless of the election results, Hindu nationalists have managed to establish themselves as the single largest political force in India.
India's fragmented politics seems to be giving way to two competing camps: the determined Hindu nationalists versus everyone else.
The cobbled-together alliance opposing Modi does not seem have any constructive agenda, only tactical electoral tie-ups to try to keep him out of power.
Regardless of the results, however, for the first time Hindu nationalists have a nationwide appeal.
Vijeta Uniyal is an Indian-born analyst based in Germany.