On 16 May we’ll know the results of the world’s largest-ever election. 814 million people are eligible to vote in India’s elections, with voting carried out across the vast country over a six week period. The scale of the project is staggering: 11 million people have been deployed to help conduct the elections and 1.4 million electronic voting machines have been installed nationwide, all at an estimated cost of $600m to the Indian government.
So what do you need to know about what’s happening in the world’s largest democracy?
The three main candidates:
Narendra Modi (Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP))
In all likelihood, the Hindu nationalist candidate Narendra Modi will soon become India’s next prime minister. Modi’s rise to power has been both unlikely and impressive: the son of a tea-seller rose rapidly through the ranks of the RSS, a neo-Fascist paramilitary organisation with links to the BJP, gaining a reputation as a formidable organiser. Since 2001 he has been the chief minister of Gujarat, where he leaves a mixed-legacy.
On the one hand, he is credited with introducing pro-business reforms that have boosted the Gujarat economy. On the other, many (including Human Rights Watch) believe he was complicit in the 2002 riots in Gujarat that contributed to the death of at least 2000 Muslims and the displacement of many more. Although he denies responsibility, comments suggesting he regretted Muslims’ suffering as he would a “puppy being run over by a car” leave many fearful of his ability to unify India’s diverse, multi-sectarian population.
Rahul Gandhi (Congress)
Rahul Gandhi is the figurehead for Congress, the party of the current prime minister Manmohan Singh. Rahul Gandhi is Congress royalty: he is the son of the party leader Sonia Gandhi and is related to three former Indian prime ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Other than that, Indians have found little to inspire them in the Gandhi princeling, and are doubtful as to Congress’s economic legacy in power.
Arvind Kejriwal (Aam Aadmi)
Arvind Kejriwal is the clear underdog in the race. The former taxman turned anti-corruption campaigner is running on a shoestring budget but with an anti-corruption campaign that resonates with disaffected middle-class Indians. After a surprise victory in Delhi's local elections, Kejriwal resigned after just 49 days as chief minister in Delhi in 2013 after failing to pass through his flagship policy of introducing an anti-graft ombudsman, and his protests stunts including hunger-strikes and rough sleeping divides popular opinion: is he a serious political player able to shake-up India’s murky politics from within, or is he more skilled as an activist agitating from the outside?
It’s the economy, stupid
Most commentators agree the key issue in this election is the Indian economy. Economic growth is slowing, and ordinary Indians face rising inflation. The country’s economic liberalisation programmes, started in the 1990s, supported the expansion of India’s middle class and a rising super-elite (India now has 56 billionaires) but according to the World Bank, India is still home to a third of the world’s poorest people, those who are surviving on less than 82p a day. 68.8 per cent per cent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, and India is in the curious position that more of the population has access to a mobile phone than to a toilet.
A series of corruption scandals among India’s economic and political elite have only highlighted this lopsided economic growth, and contributed to discontent among the middle classes and poorer Indians. In a recent poll, 96 per cent of Indians said corruption was holding their country back, and 92 per cent thought it has got worse in the past five years, a sentiment that has helped fuel the rise of India’s third party.
Although India is still a largely rural population - 68 per cent of Indians live in rural areas, and around half the workforce is employed in agriculture, economic growth and a rising middle class has helped bring about social change. The protests over the 2012 gang rape of a student in Delhi highlighted both the scale of violence against women in the country, the state of women’s rights and the potential power of mass protests. Women’s turnout has steadily increased over recent elections, and a recent poll has suggested that 75 per cent of men and women participating in the election believe the political promises made to advocate women’s rights have been inadequate so far. In the 2009 elections just 11 per cent of parliamentary seats were held by women.
Last month the Supreme Court in India has issued a new law allowing transgender people to change their gender on official documents to reflect their gender identity. This is the first election in which India’s transgender community are able to mark their gender as “other” on their ballot forms – a move that many hope is a first step towards greater economic empowerment and social recognition.