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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 ...

For the first time, voters may also register their dissatisfaction with the choice of candidates by pushing the “none of the above” button. This is important in a country where as many as 30 per cent of lawmakers have outstanding criminal cases against them – for crimes ranging from kidnapping and bribery to murder and rape.

Another first: Transgendered Indians can choose to be identified as a “third sex.”

India also has the highest population of illiterate adults: 287 million of them, almost as many people as are in the U.S. How exactly do the illiterate vote? They vote for the hand (Congress), the lotus (BJP), the broom (AAP) or any of the other symbols placed next to candidates’ names to help those who can’t read.

There is also a state-ordained, paid voting holiday, which the Election Commission requests of each state under the Negotiable Instruments Act of 1881, in order to help India’s working labourers, for whom every rupee counts, exercise their franchise.

Politicians attempt to persuade voters with feasts, liquor and cash, and many regularly spend well above their spending caps using so-called “black money” from bribes, but the actual voting process itself is generally recognized as being relatively free and fair.

India also retains an admirable voter turnout rate of more than 58 per cent. This number is partly helped by vote-buying and cynical (or pragmatic) decisions to vote according to caste. But it is also because of the Election Commission’s spirited get-out-the-vote campaign, which has enlisted SMS texts, as well as Bollywood celebrity Aamir Khan, to encourage voting.

There are an incredible 5.5 million civilian employees, from state and government employees to teachers, as well as a legion of volunteers and ground-level campaign staff, who help out.

WHERE DO THEY VOTE?

Indians will vote where they live because of an admirable rule decreeing that polling booths must be within two kilometres of each voter – something easier decreed than accomplished with 1.2 billion people spread across a vast, diverse and challenging geography. India certainly has its cities, slums and malls, but it remains, officially at least, a predominantly rural country: There are more than 845 million people living in its hinterland, though many live in rapidly urbanizing situations.

Outside of the more easily reached cities, there are thousands of remote villages, and the Election Commission still needs to reach every citizen, no matter how far removed they are from the centre of power in New Delhi. Doing that, though, requires that elections staff haul the bulky electronic voting equipment by train and by car, as well as by elephants, camels and mules, up into the Himalayas, across the deserts of Rajasthan and down south to the tropical shorelines and riverways of Kerala.

WHO ARE ALL THE PLAYERS?

Main parties:

Indian National Congress: The Congress party has ruled India for much of the post-independence era. It is in many ways the country’s natural governing party, and supporters pitch it as the virtuous guardian of India’s secular, liberal traditions. It is the party of Jawarhalal Nehru, the father of independence, and is run today by the last of the fabled Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. However, a weak Congress-led coalition has stumbled from scandal to scandal over the past decade, while policy paralysis has led to stagnating economic growth and widespread dissatisfaction.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP): The BJP is the right-wing Hindu nationalist opposition in India (Hindus make up roughly 80 per cent of the population). The BJP is the political wing of an umbrella group of pro-Hindu organizations and has rarely held power at the national level, but it steered an opposition coalition and is now undergoing a resurgence. Its national image is almost completely tied to its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, the strong-willed but controversial Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, who has many suggesting that the BJP would be more responsible and decisive on economic and security matters. Critics, however, fear a strong BJP showing could lead to ideological policies that might inflame tensions between Hindus and Muslims and lead to instability or violence.

Other parties to watch:

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