India goes to the polls in the biggest election ever seen

World’s biggest democracy: voters queue to register. EPA/Jaipal Singh

After weeks of waiting for the dates to be announced, the dates and process of the next election in the world’s largest democracy have been confirmed. On 9 separate days between April 7 and May 12, 814m Indian voters will vote in almost a million polling stations, using 1.8m electronic voting machines to allocate 543 seats in the Lok Sabha (“house of the people”). Votes will be counted on May 16; the term of the current Lok Sabha comes to an end on May 31.

India is the world’s largest democracy, and these are the 16th national elections since independence in 1947. India has changed much in that time. Once dominated by the secular Indian National Congress – although even in the first national election of 1951-2, the INC won 76% of the seats on only 45% of the vote – its politics now revolve around coalitions, with a plethora of political parties. National parties like the Congress and the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) do still exist, they are unable to come to power on their own, relying on regional and caste-based allies.

Turnout varies, but is usually around 60%, making the Election Commission of India’s (ECI) prediction of a turnout higher than 70% an ambitious one. That said, the ECI has dedicated itself to an electoral participation programme to increase voter turn-out among previously disengaged groups. And for the first time, voters will also be offered a “none of the above” option.

This will not be India’s longest election; the first elections of 1951-2 were held over a five-month period. Despite this, the length of this polling period has been controversial. The ECI has justified the time span as necessary given the logistics of providing security and impartial policing for the election, which “requires considerable deployment of central and state police forces to ensure peaceful, free, fair election with fearless participation of electors, especially in the vulnerable areas/pockets”. It is estimated that 11m security personnel and 5.5m civilian staff will be required. The ECI also had to take into account religious holidays and festivals, as well as examination schedules, harvest season, and the “onset and spread of [the] monsoon and acute hot weather conditions in certain parts of the country”.

Clash of heavyweights

Much has been made of the clash between two major party leaders. The first is Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. Modi is highly controversial, with the BJP’s alliance partner in the state of Bihar, the JD(U), withdrawing from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 2012 after the announcement. He is chief minister of the state of Gujarat, with a reputation for delivering high levels of economic growth in the state – although when compared to other states, his record looks less exceptional. He was accused of failing to prevent the massacre of up to 2000 Muslims in 2002 in Gujarat, and even of complicity in the pogrom. These accusations led to a visa ban by several foreign governments, including the US and the UK, though the UK ban was lifted in 2012, and the US ban is likely to be lifted by the US if Modi becomes prime minister.

The second major figure is Rahul Gandhi, son of Sonia and Rajiv (assassinated in 1991), grandson of Indira Gandhi (assassinated in 1984) and the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Elevated to vice-president of Congress in January 2013, Rahul is relatively inexperienced; he fumbled embarrasingly through a high-profile interview in January this year. Congress have deliberately avoided projecting him as their prime ministerial candidate, to avoid him being tarnished by their expected poor showing at the polls. Many predict the party will suffer its worst electoral defeat ever – some say it will win even fewer than 100 seats, less than half of its current total.

India’s biggest election yet. EPA/Jaipal Singh

But a focus on national leaders is hardly an appropriate way to view an election in such a diverse and differentiated country. Regional leaders, not least the indomitable J Jayalalitha from Tamil Nadu and Mamata Banerjee from West Bengal are just as important. Additionally, because India is a federal system, the electoral maths are complicated. Therefore, although a recently released large-scale attitudinal survey confirmed the general perception of huge NDA gains over the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the Congress Party, and a recent poll predicted the NDA winning 319 seats (well above the 272 needed to form a government), the exact make-up of the government will be determined by electoral alliances.

Electoral alliances between Indian political parties involve agreeing which seats in a state allied parties will each contest. One such example is the pact between the Shiv Sena and the BJP in the state of Maharashtra. The alliance between the extreme Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena and the BJP is a fairly natural one, but many other alliances are less obvious and often occasioned by political opportunism rather than ideological affiliation. This is one reason why many are still in the process of being finalised.

Cleaning house

The focus on the Modi-Gandhi dichotomy also obscures the important policy issues at stake. Corruption, inflation and economic development are the main voter concerns. Many of those who will consider voting for Modi are not extreme Hindu nationalists, but those who see him as a leader who gets things done and can produce economic growth, delivering India from the poor governance, corruption and inflation it has suffered under the Congress’s second term, where Manmohan Singh has essentially been a lame-duck prime minister.

And in this atmosphere of impatience with bad government there has emerged the Aam Aadmi (AAP) party – focused on ending corruption. The party swept to power in Delhi in December 2013, then resigned in protest in February 2014 after they were unable to table their flagship anti-corruption bill. Their leader, Arvind Kejrival, has been explicitly targeting Modi in recent days, questioning Gujarat’s economic “miracle”. AAP is unlikely to win many seats, but its emergence has changed the focus of the campaign.

Although Modi is the favourite to be India’s next prime minister, much will depend on how well the BJP performs as part of the NDA, and some voters will undoubtedly be wary of voting for the BJP or its alliance partners with Modi at the helm. However, a week is a long time in politics and with eight weeks until the polls close, this election could produce some surprises, as the University of Nottingham’s blog on #IndiaVotes2014 will be covering.