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.
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?
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:
Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party: The Common Man Party emerged from the ashes of India's enormously popular, but now somewhat diminished, anti-corruption movement and enjoys huge support among the labourers of poor, urban India. To almost everyone's surprise, in December the AAP swept the state elections in New Delhi, winning 28 seats out of 70 and ousting the long-time Congress chief of Delhi and seizing political power of the capital. Electricity bills came down by half and the poor got free water – New Delhi's rickshaw drivers seem to unanimously support the party, based on the posters adorning their vehicles – and soon the party's leader quit to run nationally. Businesspeople fear it as a disruptive wild card in national politics, but even cynics admit that the AAP has brashly pushed anti-corruption issues onto the national agenda and kept its larger rivals honest.
Narendra Modi (BJP): A lower-middle-class son of a chai wallah (tea seller) from a town in rural Gujarat, Mr. Modi has had a curious and remarkable rise through the pro-Hindu movement to become the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, where he has won a majority in three elections. He has presided over a decade of strong growth in Gujarat and is widely respected by the business community for slashing red tape and attracting investment, though critics say Gujarat was prosperous before he got there and has regressed on many social metrics. He does yoga every morning, once wandered as an ascetic, is said to be incredibly demanding, and has pledged to replace the weak coalition in New Delhi with a strong, decisive and business-oriented administration. He is widely expected to win. But many still can't see past the vicious anti-Muslim riots of 2002 that occurred under his government and in which more than a thousand people – mainly Muslims – died. Mr. Modi's refusal to apologize, and his supporters' claims that he shouldn't have to, have kept the controversy alive and fuelled fear of what his government might do with a strong mandate.
Rahul Gandhi (Congress): He is the great-grandson of India's founding prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the ostensible prime ministerial candidate for Congress. The son of Sonia Gandhi, who leads the party, Mr. Gandhi has struck most observers as a reluctant heir to power. The party brought him out to lead Congress in the state elections of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, but the party's consequent failure there left many disappointed, and questioned Mr. Gandhi's ability to guide Congress into the future. But even though corruption has bedevilled the Congress-led coalition throughout its recent reign, Mr. Gandhi's name still means a lot in Indian politics – both as a brand that can attract voters in droves, but also as a contrasting vision for a pluralistic country.
Arvind Kejriwal (AAP): A former tax collector from the Indian Revenue Service might make an unlikely firebrand, but the mustachioed Mr. Kejriwal – whose supporters wear the white Gandhian caps of Indian independence – has become a powerful force for social justice, honesty and transparency after a decade of multibillion-dollar scandals in Indian politics. He led the unknown party to surprising success and pushed for an anti-corruption bill with great support, but some wonder whether he can replicate that success at the national level with a fraction of the organizational support of the larger parties. Others saw his resignation from Delhi's government after just 49 days as a sign of the type of instability that might come with him winning power in a coalition.