On 10 March 2019, the Election Commission of India (ECI) announced the Lok Sabha (lower house) election poll schedule. That’s right — it was the ECI, not the prime minister or the government, who announced the dates of the election. This feature of the Indian electoral system provides a lesson that Western democracies could learn a lot from. It takes away not all, but certainly one important advantage of incumbency.
The ECI is the world’s most powerful and consequential electoral organisation. It is a constitutional office, which elevates its authority and stature. The chief election commissioner is given security of tenure on par with the judges of the Supreme Court of India. The Constitution makes it mandatory for the federal and state governments to make available, on request, ‘such staff as may be necessary for the discharge’ of the ECI’s functions.
The ECI is responsible for delimiting more than 500 parliamentary and over 3000 state assembly constituencies, organising and conducting national and state elections, recognising political parties, establishing procedures for the nomination of candidates, and registering all eligible voters.
The commission drafted a Model Code of Conduct that came into effect as soon as the election schedule was announced. This code of conduct governs the entire election process — from speeches and rallies to manifestos, polling booths and social media use.
Among its requirements: no public meeting can be held in the final two days before the vote, the religion and caste of opponents must not be mentioned in campaigning, and ruling parties in New Delhi and the states may not announce any new policies or projects. The code prohibits cabinet ministers from combining official visits with campaigning, or using public money for publicity or propaganda.
Consequently, the evening the election was announced Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman forswore her government car to get to Chennai airport and took a commercial flight to New Delhi instead of a special aircraft. Officials were told to avoid the usual airport send-off and meet-and-greet duties.
The elections will be staggered over seven phases from 11 April to 19 May. Of India’s 900 million eligible voters, around 65 per cent are likely to vote, a higher turnout than elections typically pull in the United States. Counting for all seats will begin on 23 May and the outcome will be announced that evening.
The reason for the staggered voting is the sheer scale of the exercise. In 2014 there were 913,000 polling stations, 1.3 million electronic voting machines staffed by over 4 million election personnel and over 2 million police officers overseeing security. The biggest constituency had 3 million people. These figures credit the immense professional competence, organisational skill and integrity of the ECI.
In 2014 the charismatic and polarising Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the general election because voters rejected the stale, populist policies of the corrupt Indian National Congress (INC). They were drawn to Modi’s promise that the country deserves and can do better.
In so thoroughly cleansing the house of parliament of INC MPs — down from 206 to 44 — voters decisively repudiated the politics of dynasty, entitlement and corruption. Modi’s policy agenda focussed on market opening reforms, greater integration with the global economy, infrastructure development, and public health and cleanliness. But during the last five years, Modi has not done nearly enough.
While India remains the world’s fastest growing major economy, and populist subsidies have hindered its annual growth by at least 1 to 2 percentage points. The failure to conclude a free trade agreement with Australia despite decade-long negotiations is symptomatic of the country’s chronic incapacity to make and implement tough decisions in a timely manner.
The elections are fought between two broad coalitions. The opposition United Progressive Alliance (UPA), traditionally headed by the INC, is focusing their campaign on jobs and farmer distress. The ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), headed by the BJP, will try to pivot to Modi’s decisive leadership, anti-corruption credentials and national security.
The NDA has the BJP at its core. The UPA has in the past formed around the INC, but with its size reduced so drastically and regional parties ascending in some of the most populous states, it is difficult to predict which UPA constituents will form the largest bloc after the election. The NDA enters the fray with its prime minister candidate known. For the UPA, every regional satrap will have prime ministerial ambitions and so their choice of candidate for the top job cannot be determined before the vote.
In a Times of India poll last month, respondents overwhelmingly expected a Modi-led NDA government to be back in power. Modi is preferred to the INC’s Rahul Gandhi as prime minister tenfold. Still, Modi is faulted for his failure to create jobs, his quixotic demonetisation decision and the across the country.
The latest poll by the Zee group, published on 10 March, foresees a hung parliament. The NDA is forecast to win 264 seats (273 is the magic number to cross the line for a majority) and the UPA to win 165. But the poll bounce after the February might see the NDA secure an absolute majority once again.
Ramesh Thakur is Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, The Australian National University and Co-Convenor of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.
A version of this article was first published by Pearls and Irritations. This version was republished by the Conversation. This article was republished with permission.