The numbers say it all. With about 81.45 crore people eligible to vote, India will witness a nine-phase election over a 36-day span covering 9,30,000 polling stations that will press into service 18,78,306 electronic ballot units — the largest and lengthiest democratic exercise in the world. The country added more than 10 crore voters since the last election five years ago, and significantly, those in the age group of 18 to 19 years will constitute 2.88 per cent of the total number of voters as against a mere 0.75 per cent in that age group in 2009. With security concerns in Jammu and Kashmir, the northeast and the Naxalite-affected areas adding to the problems of logistics, the Election Commission of India has done well to stick to a relatively tight schedule while taking into account school examination dates — most of the polling stations will be housed in school buildings — and festival days. Stretching the election period beyond this would have been unfair to the voters and candidates, who will have to go through a gruelling campaign in the middle of another harsh Indian summer. Among the new features in this general election would be the introduction of the ‘none of the above’ option in the electronic voting machines, and the adoption of a voter verifiable paper audit trail system in some constituencies.
But the election to the 16th Lok Sabha will be remembered not for the logistic difficulties and the sheer size and magnitude of the exercise. After ten years of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, this election will see corruption and governance as major issues, along with livelihood and safety concerns. The Bharatiya Janata Party, by announcing Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, is seeking to turn this election into a vote for a strong, able government that does not waver in decision-making. Unmistakably, the UPA coalition, with many of the allies pulling in different directions, and some of the Ministers caught in corruption cases, has come to be seen as weak and ineffectual. But also tapping into the voter fatigue with the UPA would be the new entrant, the Aam Aadmi Party, with its focus on institutionalised responses to ending corruption and delivering services. However, Indian elections have been known to throw up surprises. While there are clear favourites, and some dark horses, including those presenting themselves as the third alternative, India is too varied and fragmented a country for psephologists to make predictions with any degree of accuracy. Elections are also to be held to the Legislative Assemblies of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Sikkim. The Assembly of the new State of Telangana following the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh will have to be formed after the constitution of the new House. There is a lot to campaign for in the coming weeks.