World’s biggest election kicks off as India votes

There are nearly 969 million eligible voters with 5.5 million electronic voting machines set up

In Summary
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) won 303 seats in the last election, is seeking a third consecutive term in power.
  • The Election Commission has deployed 15 million polling and security staff and trains and 400,000 vehicles will be used to ferry them.
Indians que to vote in a past election
Indians que to vote in a past election

India’s parliament is made up of the Lok Sabha (lower house) and the Rajya Sabha (upper house). The election beginning today is to vote for MPs for the Lok Sabha.

All citizens living in India who are 18 years or older can register to vote (except for those who are barred on grounds of “unsoundness of mind” or criminality). A party or coalition needs to win 272 seats in the 543-member house to form the government.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) won 303 seats in the last election, is seeking a third consecutive term in power.

He’s being challenged by an opposition alliance - called the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance or INDIA - formed by more than two dozen parties, including the Congress which was the dominant party for the first 60 years of the country’s existence until the resurgence of the BJP in 2014.

How big are the elections?

There are nearly 969 million eligible voters. Nearly 1.5 million polling booths with 5.5 million electronic voting machines have been set up to cover the length and breadth of the country.

The Election Commission has deployed 15 million polling and security staff and trains and 400,000 vehicles will be used to ferry them.

The major faces

It’s hard to distil elections in a country as large as India to just a few faces - political choices can vary widely from region to region. But still, here’s a brief guide to the key names:

Narendra Modi: The Indian PM is the face of the government and his Bharatiya Janata Party. He’s aiming for a third straight term in power.

Rahul Gandhi: Member of the opposition Congress party, which was once the dominant political force in India. He belongs to India’s most illustrious political family but hasn’t yet won a national election for his party.

Arvind Kejriwal: Delhi’s popular chief minister and leader of the opposition Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is in jail on corruption charges that he says are made up. The former bureaucrat is a fiery opponent but his supporters fear his imprisonment will hamper the AAP’s campaign.

Amit Shah: India’s home minister, who is also Mr Modi’s closest confidant, is known as an efficient political strategist.

Mamata Banerjee and MK Stalin: The chief ministers of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu states, respectively, are powerful opposition leaders. Neither is standing for the election but their states - with 42 and 39 seats, respectively - are expected to see interesting contests.

Among the many other names you can expect to hear are BJP leader Yogi Adityanath (chief minister of India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh) and opposition leaders Sharad Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray and Akhilesh Yadav.

Who are the voters?

More than 51 per cent of the voters, or 497 million, are men. The number of female voters, which has consistently grown over the years, is only slightly lower at 471 million.

Young, first-time voters

India has 18m first-time voters who are between the ages of 18-19, with another 197.4m in the 20-29 age group.

Surveys show unemployment is among the top concerns for India’s youth.

What are the major issues?

A pre-poll survey conducted by think-tank CSDS-Lokniti found that unemployment, price rise and development topped the list of voters’ concerns.

It said that 27% of respondents considered unemployment to be the most important issue for them - a huge increase from 11% in a similar survey before the 2019 election.

The percentage of respondents concerned about inflation also rose by 19% compared with 2019.

Only 8% of respondents voluntarily raised corruption and a grand new Hindu temple as important concerns.

The temple to the Hindu god Ram, inaugurated by Mr Modi in January, was a longstanding poll promise of his party. It was built on the site of a 16th-century mosque torn down by Hindu mobs in 1992, sparking deadly riots in the country.

In the survey, more than 22% of the respondents said the temple topped their list of the action they "liked most" from the current government while nearly half said the temple's construction would help consolidate Hindu identity.

Why are Indian elections so long?

India is the world’s most populous nation and, being a democracy, each eligible voter in the country’s 28 states and eight union territories will get a chance to cast their ballot.

This mammoth electoral exercise will go on for a month and a half and there’s a great deal of logistics planning required to ensure that the voting takes place methodically and peacefully.

In the smallest states and federally administered territories, voting will be wrapped up in a single day. Some of the larger states will see two to four days of polling, and in states with huge populations like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, voting will be held in all seven phases.

The authorities will utilise the gaps between phases to move the polling and security staff.

Why doesn’t everyone vote?

In the 2019 general election, nearly 615 million people - 67 per cent of more than 945 million eligible voters - cast their ballots, setting a record for the highest voter turnout.

That election also saw the vanishing of the long-standing gender disparity in the turnout. However, nearly a third abstained from voting – the city-bred, the young and migrants constituted the bulk of the 300 million absent voters.

India’s voter turnout compares favourably when compared with many advanced democracies.

Analysts believe high voter turnout often signifies faith in the political system and a desire for government change - studies in both India and the US have also revealed a connection between high turnout and anti-incumbency sentiments.

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