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A woman shows her ink-marked finger after casting her vote at Makum village in Tinsukia district in the northeastern Indian state of Assam April 7, 2014. (RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI/REUTERS)

A woman shows her ink-marked finger after casting her vote at Makum village in Tinsukia district in the northeastern Indian state of Assam April 7, 2014.

(RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI/REUTERS)

India’s marathon election: Decision days for world’s largest democracy Add to ...

In terms of its breathtaking scale, India is a democracy unmatched.

From April 7, the nation of 1.2-billion people will begin trudging to polling booths across the vast expanses of the world’s largest democracy.

Whichever way Indian voters lean, and however that may impact the region, simply holding a national election in India is a huge logistical accomplishment.

This year about 100-million Indians – roughly three-times the population of Canada – will head to the polls for the first time. That pushes the number of registered voters in India to about 814-million people, more than the entire population of Europe.

Every time India holds an election it is the largest democratic exercise in history. But it doesn’t happen on its own. Behind the final tally lies an enormous and sophisticated effort involving millions of election officials, police officers, soldiers, bureaucrats and ground-level volunteers – as well as an unyielding faith in the idea of a democratic India.

WHAT'S AT STAKE?

There are 543 seats in the India’s lower house, the Lok Sabha. Precisely 272 seats are required for a straight, numerical majority, but no single party has won that way since 1989. In the 2009 election, the two main parties (Congress and BJP) accounted for just 47 per cent of the vote, with the remainder going to local and regional parties. That means India is now ruled by coalitions, with cabinet appointments doled out to key supporters. For the past decade, India has been ruled by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition, with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in opposition.

The 2014 election is being shaped by two key issues: the economy and corruption. Under the present coalition, GDP growth has gone from 10.5 per cent in 2010 to just 3.2 per cent in 2012, and is climbing only slowly, leaving millions of Indians trapped in dire poverty as economic policy-making became paralyzed by corruption and inaction. At the same time, the present government has seen enormous scandals in the telecommunications and coal industries, which has led to a broadly supported anti-corruption movement, as well as a new political party.

WHEN DO THEY VOTE?

Indian elections are not one-day affairs. Voting days are rolled out state-by-state, beginning on April 7 and concluding five weeks later on May 12. It is almost entirely because of the monumental logistics required from such a process, as well as making sure security services aren’t spread too thinly across the country.

Because dozens of prominent politicians and hundreds of candidates are criss-crossing the vast landscape at any given point in time during the election and holding huge rallies, staggered votes allow the central government and each state to deploy proper security precautions. Despite India’s generally peaceful, pluralistic society, there are occasional, horrific sparks of communal violence between Hindu and Muslim communities.

India’s vibrant democracy is also occasionally scarred by terrorist attacks – some organized from neighbouring Pakistan – so political appearances by prominent figures have tight security.

Narendra Modi, for example, is surrounded by special commandos in black uniform, as well as a crowd of local police officers, and he rides in the middle of a heavily armed procession led by a jeep outfitted with signal-jamming equipment. But even the smallest neighbourhood rally by the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party is likely to attract a half-dozen police. In total, around 11 million personnel, including the police and the military, will be deployed throughout the election process.

Because all the states vote separately, campaigning parallels the staggered voting – and the whole process turns into a democratic marathon, with major politicians flying by plane and helicopter to rallies in support of local candidates in key constituencies over the course of five gruelling weeks.

Once all the states have voted, the results are counted and announced on May 16.

HOW DO THEY VOTE?

The logistical difficulties of organizing and executing a successful Indian election are almost unimaginable. The fact that it happens at all is a remarkable accomplishment.

India’s hundreds of millions of voters do not slip a ballot into a physical box such as democracies of Canada and the United States. For the third time, India’s election is entirely electronic – enabled by a vast array of bulky, electronic voting machines that are dispatched under armed escort to the most remote reaches of the subcontinent, sometimes days in advance. The machines are stored in secure rooms with double lock systems and are guarded by police and monitored by closed-circuit cameras 24 hours a day. Voters simply push the blue button next to their candidate.

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