India starts voting a fortnight from today
India will begin voting in exactly a fortnight from now to elect 543 MPs for a new Lok Sabha in a parliamentary election that will be the world's largest democratic exercise involving a whopping 814 million strong electorate.
With most opinion polls indicating a defeat for the Congress-led UPA coalition of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after a decade in office, an aggressive Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is confident of ushering in a political makeover.
But many also feel there will be a hung parliament, and any new government will be - unless there is a miracle -- an alliance of national and regional parties, a trend Indians have come to accept from the 1990s.
The Election Commission is all set for the mammoth nine-phase exercise that has few parallels in the world. The polls would be watched by observers from dozens of developing countries keen to learn and adopt from India's democracy.
"We are fully geared up to conduct free and fair elections," a poll panel official told IANS. He said Chief Election Commissioner V.S. Sampath and his colleagues were touring various states to review the preparedness.
"The challenge is in terms of the geographical spread of constituencies but the polling staff is adequately trained," the official added.
The strength of the electorate has risen by nearly 100 million since 2009. A fifth of this will be 18-19 years old who, if they vote without fail, could be the catalyst for change.
Almost 11 million staff - teachers and government officials drafted for the purpose - will conduct the staggered polls in some 930,000 centres all over the country, armed with electronic voting machines.
Overseeing them will be hundreds of thousands of police and paramilitary personnel. As many as three million were deployed in 2009.
The first phase of voting will take place April 7 in two states in six of the total 543 constituencies. Seven constituencies spread over five states will see balloting April 9 and 92 constituencies in 14 states the next day.
And from April 17 to May 12, there will be six more rounds of polling, covering an entire landmass from the icy peaks of Kashmir to Tamil Nadu in the deep south, and from the deserts of Rajasthan bordering Pakistan to the northeastern states bordering China and Myanmar.
The millions of votes will get counted May 16 and the verdict will be known, in a few hours, by midday. Voting would be done countrywide through electronic voting machines (EVMs).
The BJP, which ruled the country from 1998 to 2004, is confident that it will be voted back to power. "We will get around 230 (Lok Sabha) seats on our own," a BJP leader, Vijay Goel, told IANS. "And we will have our allies too."
The Congress, although stressed thanks to a string of corruption scandals that have plagued the central government, as well as the regional parties are not giving up.
More than the Congress, the regional parties are confident of holding on to their strongholds in most parts of the country. And playing a spoilsport is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which appears to be ranged against everyone.
Irrespective of which party fares how, it is clear that the most important personality of this election is Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is the BJP's prime ministerial candidate.
"This will be a personality-oriented election," BJP's Goel said.
In contrast to Modi, the Congress - India's oldest political party - does not have a prime ministerial candidate.
Economist-turned-politician Manmohan Singh, the prime minister 10 long years, will bow out after this election. Congress president Sonia Gandhi has health issues. Her son and party vice president Rahul Gandhi does not appear ready, though he has been projected as a presumptive prime ministerial candidate in the party's campaign ads.
It will be most likely AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal who will take on Modi when the latter contests from the Hindu holy city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, besides Vadodara in his own Gujarat.
India held its first parliamentary election in 1952, only four years after the British colonial rule ended. Jawaharlal Nehru was the first prime minister, a post he held for a record 17 long years.
(M.R. Narayan Swamy can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Posted on 23-03-2014)