Over 110 million Indians cast their ballots this week as the country’s nine-phase election process began on April 7th. Over the next month, in the worlds largest democracy, more than 814 million people will be eligible to vote for 543 members of Parliament. After the ballots are counted on May 16th, India’s new legislators will elect a Prime Minister.
With so many voters across India, the country’s electoral commission confronts sizeable logistical challenges. Polling centers in urban areas often face overcrowding, while military helicopters have been used to deliver ballots in remote Himalayan villages. Additionally, over 100 million additional Indians are eligible to cast ballots since the last election five years ago.
Indian Congress Party Vice President Rahul Gandhi addresses an election campaign rally in New Delhi, India, on Nov. 17, 2013. (Photo: Partha Sarkar)
Over 500 political parties are competing for seats in this first-past-the-post parliamentary system, the winning party will likely need to create a coalition to govern. Currently, the Indian National Congress Party has run India for ten years straight and with little interruption since the country won independence in 1947. But the party faces an uphill battle this year; many believe that the Congress Party has been unable to deliver on promises of faster economic growth, less corruption and better governance. Rahul Gandhi, Congress’s front runner, comes from a long tradition of political elite; with his mother termed the most powerful woman in India.
Meanwhile the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist party lead by Narendra Modi, has largely capitalized on the void in confidence left by the Congress Party. Modi, a former tea seller, rose to be chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat. Running on a platform of economic growth and supported by many business leaders, Modi’s modest background is in stark contrast to that of Rahul Gandhi.
But support for Narendra Modi comes with controversy, as he has showed hostility toward Muslims. On one occasion during his role as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, Modi seemed indifferent to the slaughter of over 1,000 Muslims in his state by Hindu Nationalists. While formally cleared of wrongdoing by subsequent government investigations, evidence in the inquiries had been lost or destroyed.
Ultimately India’s next ruler will be judged on his ability to increase economic growth, limit official corruption and deliver government services in an efficient manner. But the country’s relations with the outside world, especially with predominantly Muslim Pakistan, might re-emerge as a prominent issue. Whether the candidates can deliver on their promises or not, India’s political system appears to be robust enough to insure that nearly all Indians can vote in the largest election in history.