Since coming to India, I have written about many current events topics. That’s my hook. Bombay Jules shares stories of Mumbai through a photographer’s lens; MaximumCity Madam gives you an expat’s eye view into daily life; Mumbai Mum takes you on the amazing journey of motherhood. I write about communication, culture, and current events. Yet, I have assiduously avoided one topic: politics. First on the list of Divine Caroline’s top 10 things NOT to talk about at a dinner party, politics in India is complicated to say the least.
Yet, here we stand on the threshold of what many think will be the most exciting political race in years. After the Election Commission announced the poll dates, the Times of India produced a special section and called the upcoming election the “Greatest Show on Earth,” the inspiration for my post title. An homage to PT Barnum’s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the phrase evokes the carnival-like atmosphere and scale of the upcoming election.
Most expats can’t participate, but we can sit back and watch the largest democracy on Earth choose its next generation of leaders. Over the next few months, Indian voters will have the opportunity to shape not only India’s future, but the world’s.
What kind of system is it?
India is a parliamentary democracy founded in 1947.
Like the Westminster model, with its Houses of Lords and Commons, the Indian Parliament has two legislative houses: the Rajya Sabha (the Council of States or upper house) and the Lok Sabha (the House of the People or lower house).
Who’s in charge?
The President of India is the titular head of Parliament, like the Queen is in the UK. Like the Queen, the President appoints the Prime Minister of India (PM). The PM is the Head of the Union (Federal) Government and oversees the day-to-day functioning of the Federal Government of India.
Traditionally, the President chooses the leader of the political party that wins the most votes in the Lok Sabha elections. However, if that party doesn’t receive a clear majority, a coalition must be formed with other parties. For example, the current ruling party is the Indian National Congress (INC or Congress), but the coalition is called the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The UPA includes members from the INC, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and seven other political parties.
When are the elections?
National elections in India occur every five years, but election dates aren’t set much in advance. Maybe we Americans are the only ones who do that? I can tell you now that the next US presidential election will be Tuesday, 8 November 2016, but the Lok Sabha poll dates for the upcoming elections were only announced a few weeks ago. The polls will take place between 7 April and 12 May. The votes will be counted on 16 May.
Who can vote?
The legal voting age is 18, and this year saw the largest group of first-time voter registrations ever. Nearly 30% of Indian voters are under age 30, making Young India a potentially powerful voting group. Almost 24% of voters is between 18 and 19 alone.
Women comprise almost half the voting electorate (47%), but they have not traditionally been a large, cohesive voting bloc. Nevertheless, women have become powerful influencers in recent races.
The election by the numbers
The most intimidating data about the election is its scale. To simplify, we can break it down by the numbers, and the first number is a doozy.
815 million (81.5 Crore) voters
815,000,000. Let all those zeroes sink in. Eight hundred and fifteen million voters.
India is truly the world’s largest democracy. The Indian electorate outnumbers the electorates of the next five largest democracies—combined. Combined! By comparison, the second largest democracy, the US, had only 235 million eligible voters in 2012—less than 1/3 the estimated Indian electorate. To exceed that number in India, simply add the total eligible voters for only the top three states of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and West Bengal, and your total is already 276 million.
600,000 electronic voting machines
Indian voters will use over 600,000 electronic voting machines to cast their ballots. According the Election Commission of India (ECI) website, each machine can record up to 3,840 votes. For those wondering how electronic machines will work in remote rural areas without electricity, the solution is simple: batteries. The machines run on simple 6-volt batteries. The machines can also record up to 64 candidates for a single position.
550 seats in the Lok Sabha
The Lok Sabha is equivalent in scope and number to the US House of Representatives and the UK House of Commons. The Lok Sabha’s 550 members fall squarely between the US’s 435 representatives and the UK’s 650 members. 550 is about 1 Lok Sabha member for every 2 million Indians. The number of seats is determined by population, with the most densely populated states receiving the majority of seats. Uttar Pradesh, home to the Taj Mahal, has the largest number of seats: 80.
48 seats available in Maharashtra
Maharashtra has the second highest number of available seats at 48, making it a critical swing state. Maharashtra voters will cast ballots over three consecutive Thursdays: 10th April, 17th April, and 24th April. Mumbai voters will go to the polls on 24th April.
9 phases of voting over 36 days
The election will take place in 9 phases over the course of 36 days from 7th April until 12th May. All votes will be counted on 16th May. The largest number of seats will be chosen on 17th April: 122. The Election Commission chose poll dates and locations based on a number of factors, including lunar cycles to ease the movement of troops in certain regions.
3 candidates for Prime Minister (or is it 4)?
Technically, Indians do not vote directly for PM. Voters choose the Lok Sabha politicians. The leader of the majority party is usually appointed the Prime Minister. However, as the polls have neared, three major candidates have emerged with a possible fourth option.
Think of it like The Beatles. Each candidate has something different to offer with his own manifesto and ideology. There’s something for everyone.
Rahul Gandhi (The “Cute” One)
- Nickname: RaGa, a play on raja, the Hindi word for king
- Party affiliation: Indian National Congress Party (INC or Congress)
- Position: Current Vice-President of the Congress Party, the current ruling party
- Profession before political life: Management consultant
- Summary of political position: Secular, democratic, inclusive
- Beatles song: Yesterday
Arvind Kejriwal (The “Hatted” One)
- Nickname: Kejri
- Party affiliation: Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP)
- Position: Leader of the AAP and former Delhi Chief Minister
- Profession before political life: Mechanical engineer by training. Worked for the Indian Revenue Service as a civil servant.
- Summary of political position: Anti-corruption crusader
- Beatles song: Revolution
Narendra Modi (The “Bearded” One)
- Nickname: NaMo
- Party affiliation: Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
- Position: Chief Strategist of BJP and Chief Minister of Gujarat
- Profession before political life: Tea vendor
- Summary of political position: Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), pro-development, Brand India
- Beatles song: India, India
NOTA (The “None of the Above” One)
- Nickname: None but not to be confused with neta (politician or leader in Hindi)
- Party affiliation: None
- Position: None
- Profession before political life: None
- Summary of political position: This election marks the first time Indians can vote for none of the available candidates by casting a vote for “None of the Above.”
- Beatles song: Nowhere Man
One vote. That’s all it takes for Indians to make their voices heard and fight for their rights. Whether that’s their right to party or something else.
As the Times so aptly put it, every Indian has the choice to “Be the One.”
For more information
Most of the data for this article was pulled from the ECI website and TOI special section on the election. I encourage you to explore these sites for yourself. Each party has a website, and you can also follow all the political parties on Facebook and Twitter.
Election Commission of India website:
Times of India portal: