India’s multi-phase general elections will kick off on Thursday when millions of voters will vote in 91 constituencies across 20 states in the first phase of the polls.
Approximately 900 million voters – more than the combined population of the US and the European Union – eligible to participate in the biggest electoral exercise in the world. The seven-phase elections will conclude on May 19. Results will be announced on May 23.
Voters from across 29 states and seven federally administered territories will elect 543 members to the lower house of parliament called as Lok Sabha or peoples house over the course of over one month.
The party or coalition with simple majority (273 seats) is invited to form government. The MPs from winning party or coalition elect their leader who becomes the prime minister.
At least 2,354 political parties are registered with the Election Commission of India – an autonomous constitutional body – for the 17th Lok Sabha elections. However, only some 500 of them are expected to field candidates.
In the 2014 elections, 8,251 candidates from more than 460 political parties contested the elections.
Elections will also be held for the states assemblies in Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha and Sikkim.
More than 11 million officials
More than 11 million election officials, including security forces, will be deployed across more than one million polling stations to “conduct the biggest management event of any kind”.
“We have been conducting the largest elections in the world every time with great credibility,” Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraishi, the former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), told Al Jazeera.
“It’s the most powerful electoral body in the world, that’s why have been able to conduct the biggest management event of any kind with such finesse every time,” Quraishi said.
More than 450 officers and staff work at Election Commission’s headquarters in New Delhi.
Election officials and security forces travel by foot, road, trains, helicopter, boat and sometimes elephant to reach remote areas.
In the 2009 general election, a polling station was set up in the Gir forest of western Gujarat state just for one voter.
Approximately 39,000 voters have identified as “third gender”. India is home to about half a million transgender people, who were recognised by the Supreme Court in 2014.
About 38.7 billion rupees ($552m) was spent to conduct the 2014 elections, according to the Election Commission estimates.
Voting in India is conducted by electronic voting machine or EVM, which was first introduced in 1982. More than 2.3 million EVMs will be used in 2019 elections as compared to 1.8 million in 2014.
To check foul play, vehicles transporting the EVMs will be fitted with GPS devices to monitor their movements.
The EVMs are fast with counting done in 2-3 hours compared to manual ballot paper counting, which takes 30-40 hours.
The electoral body also uses digital cameras, videotaping of speeches and the use of wireless networks during the election process.
In the current elections, Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machine will be used along with EVM at every polling station after opposition parties questioned the accuracy of the EVMs.
The VVPAT allows the voter to cross-check her/his votes.
“Ever since EVMs were introduced in 1982, they have been questioned and challenged, but they have stood judicial scrutiny and they stood the test of time,” Quraishi, the former electoral body chief said.
“Now finally we have introduced VVPAT, which means a paper slip is generated, which you can use to crosscheck the figures in the machines.”
About 553 million or 66 percent of all eligible voters turned out in the last election that gave Hindu nationalist Modi a landslide victory – the first absolute majority in three decades.
But critics say that India’s election proces should also address the allegations of voter deletions in some parts of the country and work to minimise the influence of money during the campaigning to ensure level playing field.
“Well money power has been a major problem in the last couple of decades. There are legal mechanism on expenditure by candidates but they are violated with impunity because there’s a lot of black money. EC does not have a magic wand to remove black money from the elections,” Quraishi said.
“Electoral bonds were introduced to bring transparency but they have achieved exactly the opposite since donors to political parties are not known to the public.”
Electoral bonds are promissory notes that allow anonymous, digital donations to registered political parties.
“The solution is simple, the former CEC Quraishi says, “let the bond continue, but there is should be disclosure who has donated to whom so that people can form their own opinion whether there is quid pro quo or whether it’s a case of crony capitalism.”
India is home to biggest markets for social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp thanks to the cheap data tariff.
To check misuse of social media, candidates are required to declare their social media account .
Facebook and Google have promised not to allow malicious content on their platform and will report fake news and hate speech to the election commission.
The main issues
National security has dominated the election campaigning in the wake of a military stand-off with neighbouring Pakistan following a suicide attack in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking reelection, has used national security and a promise to build a temple for Hindu god Ram to galvanise his Hindu support base.
In the past five years of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, social tensions have gone up due to attacks on minority groups such as Dalits and Muslims.
The opposition parties, including the Congress party, have questioned the government’s handling of job crisis – the worst in 45 years – and agrarian distress.
Modi’s main challenger, Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party has promised minimum income job guarantee (Rs 6,000 or $87 per month) for the poorest 20 percent of the population.
Though a number of Indian cities have been included in the most polluted list, pollution has failed to become an election issue.
Women representation in Lok Sabha has been low despite India electing a woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi, way back in 1966. In the outgoing Lok Sabha, only 59 lawmakers were women.
India is home to 172 million Muslims, who are underrepresented in the democratic institutions. In the last parliament, only 22 MPs were Muslims – the lowest since India conducted its first elections in 1952.
- Narendra Modi – the incumbent prime minister and the leader of the BJP
- Rahul Gandhi – the leader of the main opposition Congress party
- Mamata Banerjee – Chief Minister of West Bengal state and the leader of the Trinamool Congress
- Akhilesh Yadav – the leader of Samajwadi Party, a former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh
- Mayawati – the leader of Bahujan Samaj Party, a former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh
- Tejashvi Yadav – the leader of Rashtriya Janata Dal and former deputy chief minister of Bihar state
- MK Stalin – the leader of DMK party from Tamil Nadu
- Navin Patnaik – Chief Minister of Odisha state and the leader of Biju Janata Dal
- Shashi Tharoor – the leader of Congress party and a former minister
- Pinarayi Vijayan – Chief Minister of Kerala state and the leader of Communist Party of India (Marxist)
- Asaduddin Owaisi – one of the most prominent Muslim leaders of the country, the leader of MIM
- Nitish Kumar – Chief Minister of Bihar state and the leader of Janata Dal (United)
Source: Al Jazeera