To the polls

What costs $61.5 million, requires 140,000 polling stations and 236,000 electronic voting machines, and involves over a million voters? Day 3 of the Indian parliamentary elections. To be more specific, these figures encompass only one constituency in one state in one phase of the nine-part voting series that is sweeping the country.

Indian Elections

Today, 92 constituencies in 14 states, including Delhi–the nation’s capitol–and parts of Uttar Pradesh–India’s most populous state and, consequently, one of the major voting players, cast their votes. These voting districts (in purple) contain over 100 million eligible voters and turnout was higher than 60% in each state. Smaller states in the northeast have already voted, but interest is peaking as the election phases move inward given the high number of parliamentary seats at stake in the more populated states.

“Uttar Pradesh is key because it sends 80 MPs to parliament and how different communities vote there, including Hindu Jats and Muslims after the riots, will tell us if they are more concerned about religious violence and identity or about everyday worries like jobs and local infrastructure.”

Votes will be tallied and results announced on May 16th. I read about, hear about, and think about the Indian elections all day, every day and still have trouble keeping up with what is going on. Here are some very succinct answers to the FAQ’s on the 2014 Lok Sabha (lower house) elections:

What are the main political parties? How have their candidates risen to power?

India has a multiparty system with more than 50 regional parties and two major national parties, the Indian National Congress, which leads the governing coalition, and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

The Congress party, which was formed in 1885, when India was still under British rule, has dominated Indian politics. The party played a leading role in the struggle against colonial rule, giving rise to some of the most prominent national leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who went on to become the first prime minister of India. Until the early 1990s, it had such broad support from the public that it was capable of forming a government without coalition partners. The descendants of Mr. Nehru dominate the party, and three prime ministers have come from that family: Mr. Nehru; his daughter, Indira Gandhi; and his grandson, Rajiv Gandhi. Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984; her son Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991. His widow, Sonia Gandhi, took over the party and in recent years promoted their son, Rahul Gandhi, as the heir to their political legacy. Rahul Gandhi is now the vice president of the Congress party.


The Bharatiya Janata Party, the other leading national party, is the main opposition in the Lok Sabha. Its roots are in the Hindu nationalist organizations. The Bharatiya Janata Party won the 1998 elections as a leader of the National Democratic Alliance and stayed in power until 2004. Narendra Modi, the party’s candidate for prime minister in this year’s election, is a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and a self-described Hindu nationalist. Mr. Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, a state in western India, during riots in 2002. At least 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in clashes between Hindus and Muslims. Mr. Modi has long been accused of not doing enough to stop the violence, although a court rejected efforts to prosecute him. Nevertheless, he remains a divisive figure.

Narendra Modi

The Aam Aadmi Party, or the Common Man Party, was born out of mass street protests against corruption that erupted in 2010 and 2011. Its leader is a retired civil servant named Arvind Kejriwal. The party surprised political analysts by winning 28 seats in the Delhi state elections, enough to seat Mr. Kejriwal as chief minister. But Mr. Kejriwal resigned just 49 days into his term, accusing the two main parties of failing to support an anticorruption bill. The upstart party declared its national ambitions early and has fielded candidates for Lok Sabha seats across the country. But few expect it to pose a serious challenge to the established parties in the national elections.

Arvind Kejriwal

How does the voting work?

The Election Commission of India has mobilized  more than 10 million polling officials and security personnel to carry out the election. There will be about 930,000 polling stations. Voting is staggered. In this election, it will be done in nine phases from April 7 to May 12. Voting will be done by electronic ballot. This is the first time that nonresident Indians are allowed to vote. It is also the first time voters will be able to exercise the option, “none of the above.” The results are scheduled to be announced on May 16.

How is the prime minister chosen?

The party that wins the greatest number of seats usually forms the government and chooses the prime minister. Getting a majority, or 272 seats, usually requires building a coalition with smaller parties. The Bharatiya Janata Party has named Mr. Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for this election, but parties are not required to choose a candidate before elections. The Congress party has not named a prime ministerial nominee. The single largest party in the house usually chooses its prime minister, who may be a member of the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Parliament.

What are governing coalitions and how are they formed?

India’s multiparty democracy allows for the formation of alliances between political parties. Since the mid-1990s, coalition governments have been the norm as no party has been able to secure a majority on its own. Alliances are fluid and can change any time after the elections. The two main coalitions in India are the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance.

What are some key themes that have emerged in the election? What do voters care about?

Corruption: A slew of corruption scandals involving the Congress-led government, and an anticorruption push by the Aam Aadmi Party have left an impression on voters.

Economy: Slowing growth, persistent unemployment and high food prices have led to disenchantment with the present government.

Secularism: The ascent of Mr. Modi and his Hindu nationalist party has raised concerns that members of minority religious groups would face discrimination if the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power.

Violence against women has also become a particularly salient issue thanks to the intense media attention given to several high profile rape cases in the past two years.

How will these elections influence India’s relationship with Pakistan, Asia and the West?

Whether foreign policy is a high priority for the next government depends on the strength of the coalition. If it is weak, it will be too preoccupied with domestic battles to take on big initiatives in foreign policy. India’s foreign policy is not likely to shift drastically, but a strong Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition would probably make larger changes because of the party’s Hindu nationalist streak and pro-business stand.

The current administration, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress party, has not made improving relations with Pakistan a priority as domestic issues have kept the government occupied.

The Bharatiya Janata Party has outlined a zero-tolerance policy toward terrorism and accused Pakistan of infiltrating India. India under Mr. Modi would be unlikely to adopt a confrontational stance with Pakistan, but it is doubtful it would be on friendlier terms with its neighbor. The Bharatiya Janata Party has made it clear that it would respond firmly to any Chinese territorial aggression, but Mr. Modi is also mindful of India’s economic ties with China. No matter which party is in charge, India is likely to avoid jeopardizing economic relations with China, which has emerged as a key trading partner and potential investor.

Though the Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto has reiterated the party’s opposition to foreign investment in retail chains that sell more than one brand of products, known in India as multibrand retail, Mr. Modi has welcomed foreign investment in his home state of Gujarat. His business-friendly reputation is likely to help strengthen ties with the West, which had shunned him after the 2002 Gujarat riots. The United States denied him a visa.

In recent years, both European and American envoys have met with Mr. Modi as he modeled himself as an investor-friendly politician. And with his strong following among Indian-Americans, business ties between the United States and India would likely grow.

But the next prime minister, regardless of party, will face strained relations with the United States. An Indian diplomat was arrested on visa fraud charges in December and later indicted, which set off a furor in India.

Exit polls are banned so that the news of which party is gaining seats doesn’t influence voters later on in the sequence. So far turn-out and enthusiasm have been high and violence and corruption allegations low; quite the feat for an undertaking so large.

Studying Indian politics–a topic new to me as of last August–has been a very interesting and eye-opening experience. Politics doesn’t thrill me in any setting, but it is exciting and satisfying to go from being completely ignorant of any and all Indian domestic affairs, to being able to keep up with (and even know more than) what I read in the news. At the very least, I know the acronyms and the names of the parties and politicians no longer sound like gibberish.

It has also changed how I view American politics in ways that make me both appreciative of our system (there is far less corruption and criminality in American politics than in India) and disappointed that American voters do not approach elections with such vigor. Questions of political corruption and the necessity of moral integrity in politicians are things I’ve pondered from time to time, but I’ll save that. It’ll take more articulating than I have both the time (my mom is coming to visit me tomorrow! So I have to clean the house) and mental energy (five hours of sleep after a late evening at a National’s game…it was free and fun–no regrets) to spend.

Anyways, if something you’ve read has intrigued you or if you feel up to the challenge of keeping up with this bustling country, check this out. My boss and I have been working on this all year and it compiles a lot of material that is both current, historic, basic, and nuanced.

India Decides



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