The largest exercise in democracy on the planet is beginning this week as India begins the more than month-long process of electing 543 members to its parliament, the Lok Sabha.
More than 814 million people will be eligible to cast their vote at almost a million polling stations. The sheer scale of the operation means that voting will take place on nine days in different parts of the country between April 7 and May 12 to allow sufficient resources to be deployed. Ballots will not be counted until May 16 with the result expected soon after.
The nearest analogy to the Indian vote is the United States primary system. Voting makes a modest start on Monday with just six constituencies contested, five in Assam and one in Tripura. The equivalent of 'Super Tuesday' (in reality consecutive Thursdays) occurs on the 17th and 24th when 121 and 117 constituencies are in play respectively.
While there is the usual clutter of minor and regional parties, the two giants are the ruling Indian National Congress Party, usually referred to as Congress which, with various supporting groups, has formed the Government for the past decade, and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
After Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced his retirement from politics at this election, Congress chose Rahul Gandhi, the scion of a family that has dominated the party – and Indian politics – since independence from the British in 1947. Gandhi is the great grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, the nation's first Prime Minister, the grandson of Indira Gandhi and the son of Rajiv Gandhi who held power at various times in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
Even during the Singh premiership it was widely recognised that Rahul's mother, Congress Party President Sonia, was the power behind the throne, so it was perhaps not surprising that Congress turned once again to a winning formula and chose the latest Gandhi to lead it.
There are signs, however, that the Gandhi magic is fading. For a start Rahul does not have the love of the political rough and tumble that characterised his ancestors. A back-bench MP, he has never held Ministerial office, and refused one under Singh. He is on record as saying he would rather work behind the scenes and reform the Congress Party's structure than lead from the front.
When he eventually agreed to be the Prime Ministerial candidate, his acceptance speech was less than enthusiastic, saying that as a "soldier of Congress" he was bound to accept what it wanted. Since then he has been a lacklustre and unenthusiastic performer on the campaign trail. In recent State elections his presence did nothing to stop a rout by the BJP.
His task is made all the more difficult by his opponent from the BJP, the charismatic four-term Chief Minister of Gujarat State, Narendra Modi. Over the past decade in a series of sometimes controversial pro-business initiatives Modi has transformed Gujarat into the economic powerhouse of India.
A recent Economic Freedom of the States of Indiareport placed Gujarat solidly at the head of its index as the best place in India in which to do business with an average annual growth rate of 12 per cent between 2005 and 2011.
Modi's claim that he can do for India what he has achieved in Gujarat has struck a chord with the electorate. A Nielson poll predicts the BJP and its supporters are heading back to power with a likely total of 236 seats against the Congress Party and supporters' 92. The result would mean the BJP would have to negotiate with some of the numerous minor parties to secure an overall majority, but that is normal given the fragmented state of Indian politics.
Modi's record in Gujarat has come under attack from Arvind Kejirwal, the leader of the third force in Indian politics, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Kejirwal, who will stand against Modi in the Uttar Pradesh seat of Varanasi, claimed the Gujarat economic boom has been achieved only at the expense of poor farmers who had their land possessed for industry. As a result, Kejirwal said, many farmers had been forced into poverty and even suicide.
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