The world’s most packed polling stations


Some 900 million citizens will elect the Lok Sabha, or lower house. Modi heads the polls but Indian democracy is highly unpredictable

The new Lok Sabha will be India’s seventeenth since independence. For logistical and security reasons voting will be phased over several dates across India’s 29 states. To avoid influencing the poll in another state, counting will only commence when all states have voted – and is expected to be concluded by mid-May before the new Lok Sabha meets in early June. At least four states will hold elections to state assemblies at the same time.

Everything about India is large and that is true of its election. In 2014, 843 million citizens were eligible to vote. With twelve million Indians joining the jobs market each year there are likely to be around 900 million on the electoral roll this year. It is a massive organisational challenge, the responsibility of the Election Commission. In most states voting machines are used.  

Jobs will be a key electoral issue since the incumbent prime minister, Narendra Modi, promised to create more jobs when campaigning five years ago. Detractors say he has failed to deliver on this promise. Modi, considered a pro-business leader, was widely criticised for his bold “demonetisation” initiative of 2016 when the two highest value rupee notes were abolished overnight in an attempt to eliminate so-called “black money”, a parallel economy outside the country’s banking and tax structures. The move caused severe difficulty to small businesses where workers are generally paid in cash and considerable inconvenience to shoppers and shop-keepers.

Nonetheless, Modi is favourite to win another term. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rode to power in 2014 on a wave of popular support, transporting Modi from chief minister of Gujarat, one of India’s most highly industrialised states, to the premiership. The BJP can point to a GDP average rate of growth in excess of 7 per cent since Modi took over.

In 2014, voters evidently felt a change was needed. They rejected the Congress Party which has ruled India in total for nearly 50 years, and had become tainted by allegations of corruption in connection with defence purchases. Modi’s BJP fell just short of an overall majority with 266 seats in the 545 member house while Congress, which previously held a majority, won a mere 44 seats. Modi formed a government with the support of smaller parties giving him 305 seats in all.

Congress is fighting hard to regain power, trying to ‘turn the tables’ by making its own accusation of corruption against the BJP government’s plan to purchase Rafale fighter aircraft from France.

Congress accuses the nationalist BJP of trying to make India a Hindu state – a “Hindu Pakistan” – notwithstanding the country’s large non-Hindu minorities, which include 250 million Muslims. India has traditionally taken pride in its constitutional status as a secular nation. As nearly one billion of India’s 1.3 billion population follow the Hindu religion it will be hard for Congress to win voters by preaching a secular agenda.

A likely election issue is the plight of India’s farmers. Those who earn their living from the land constitute roughly half the population. An uncomfortably high rate of suicide among farmers in recent years is clear evidence they are finding it harder than ever to make a living against tough competition, unpredictable weather and consumers who react adversely to any increase in market prices. Both main parties are trying to capture the farmers’ votes by promising to alleviate their hardship. 

Where once it was the so-called “low castes” or “Dalits” who sought government quotas for jobs and school places, now it is rural farmers who are seeking favour from their elected representatives. Tens of thousands marched on Parliament in Delhi last November to demand better prices for their produce. Congress says it will introduce a minimum wage. 

Another issue is the way the BJP-led government has, according to Congress, undermined state institutions that are meant to be above politics. They accuse the government of undermining the neutral status of the Electoral Commission and the Reserve Bank of India, the country’s central bank, while the Central Bureau of Investigation has been in disarray following the recent suspension of two senior officials.

Similar accusations are made about the politicisation of government-run universities. The appointment of a Hindu nationalist as vice chancellor of India’s premier academic institution, Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, and his demand for political loyalty from faculty members triggered a debate about academic freedom. The government is accused of rating political allegiance more highly than academic capability. Similar charges are levelled against privately-owned media, some of whose business owners appear to rate support for Modi’s government ahead of journalistic integrity.

Important though these issues are, the election may turn out to be a popularity contest between the established figure of Narendra Modi, 68, and the Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi, twenty years his junior. Modi’s following owes much to his twelve and half years as chief minister of Gujarat during which the state prospered. Elected prime minister in 2014, he appeared to overcome blame for a serious outbreak of anti-Muslim violence which occurred in Gujarat in 2002 leaving around 2000 people dead.

By contrast, Rahul Gandhi is unproven having taken over leadership of the Congress Party from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, little more than a year ago. He led the party’s election campaign in 2014 – which resulted in its worst ever electoral defeat. The 48-year old has yet to prove himself a vote winner rather than just a political heir. His father, Rajiv, grandmother Indira and great grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, each ruled as prime minister in their time.

Congress has refused to name Rahul Gandhi as its candidate for prime minister, saying they plan to win the election before choosing their parliamentary leader. However, following the party’s success in December at assembly elections in the central Indian states of Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, Congress appears more confident in putting its faith in Gandhi and may even feel that his heritage will serve the party well. Keeping up the dynastic tradition, Rahul’s mother Sonia is expected to retain her parliamentary seat while his sister, Priyanka, has been drafted in to help the campaign.

Besides the big two, there are many other parties. Some, like the two wings of the Communist Party of India, separated by ideological differences, and the Bahujan Samaj Party representing the lower castes, have wide appeal but are electorally insignificant at national level.

More relevant are parties represented only in one state, like the AIADMK of the southern state of Tamil Nadu which holds 37 seats in the current Lok Sabha. Such parties become potential ‘king-makers’ should the BJP or Congress fail to win an outright majority and need to draw on so-called regional parties to put together a political alliance.

A strength of India’s democracy is that it is difficult to predict the outcome, not least because of widely different levels of support for the major parties across the states. It is said that elections are won or lost in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which has a population of nearly 200 million and 80 seats in the Lok Sabha. If either main party falls short of a majority, then “horse-trading” to put together a coalition government will begin in earnest.

This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

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