India begins voting in world’s largest democratic exercise

Some 814 million eligible to vote in five-week long schedule

Voters wait  at a polling station during the first phase of the Indian general election in Lakhimpur district, Assam state, on Monday. Photograph: EPA

Voters wait at a polling station during the first phase of the Indian general election in Lakhimpur district, Assam state, on Monday. Photograph: EPA


India began voting yesterday in the world’s largest democratic exercise in which the ruling Congress Party is pitted against the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

The first of nine rounds of polling – in which some 814 million Indians are eligible to vote – got under way in six of 543 parliamentary seats in the northeastern provinces of Assam and Tripura.

The availability of security forces to guard over 930,000 polling stations stretching from the northern Himalayas to India’s tropical southern tip has determined the five-week long voting schedule that ends on May 12th.

Electronic voting machines will be used and, for the first time, include a “None of the Above” option for voters not wanting to cast their ballot for any of the candidates in an election dominated by issues of corruption, rising prices, societal attitudes to rape and widespread malgovernance.

Vote counting will begin on May 16th and is to be completed on the same day.

A new government to succeed prime minister Manmohan Singh’s federal coalition will then assume office by the end of the month.

Recent opinion polls indicate that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), headed by Narendra Modi (63), the son of a tea vendor, is likely to emerge as the single largest party, defeating the increasingly unpopular Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi (43), the privileged scion of India’s Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty.

Likely outcome
With a Nehru or Gandhi at its head, the Congress Party has ruled India for more than 50 years since independence from colonial rule in 1947.

Projections, however, indicate a rout for the Congress Party this time but with the BJP falling short of the 272-seat majority required to form the government, rendering a coalition led by it as the most likely outcome. No single party has won a parliamentary majority in India since 1989, giving regional leaders immense power at the national level.

After two five-year terms, numerous polls view the BJP as the likely winner in light of the Congress Party’s declining political fortunes due to widespread corruption, rising food and fuel prices, nepotism, and vacillation on security and foreign policy issues.

“Collapsing economic growth, high inflation and corruption explain why the Congress is headed for its worst defeat ever,” political commentator and economist Swaminathan Aiyar said.

Mr Modi, who has been elected chief minister of western Gujarat province three times since 2001, is widely viewed as a decisive and pro-business administrator responsible for ushering in growth and prosperity.

But his Hindu nationalism and links to anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, in which more than 1,200 people died over several weeks of mayhem, worry largely secular India. Although exonerated by several judicial commissions inquiring into the anti-Muslim pogrom, Mr Modi has steadfastly refused to express remorse over the killings.

Since January he has been frantically crisscrossing the country, successfully pitching his message of development, social justice and employment to millions of voters disenchanted with the Congress Party. But he is also accused by his opponents of creating a personality cult around himself and progressively viewed with trepidation by a large number of liberal Indians.

Rahul Gandhi’s leadership credentials, on the other hand, are under close public and media scrutiny. The Cambridge- and Harvard-educated Gandhi has never held a ministerial or public post and is widely considered a political dilettante, seemingly reluctant to assume responsibility. Many see him as privileged, aloof, politically naive and out of touch with everyday India.

The Congress Party has not formally declared Mr Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate, a ploy which analysts claim is aimed at shielding him from blame if defeated at the hustings.

Congress has seen its fortunes plummet steadily since 2009, when it won its current term in office. It has been dogged by recurring corruption scandals, an alarming financial deficit and a 20 per cent decline in the value of the Indian rupee against the American dollar.