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A Battle for India’s Soul

Every Indian general election beats its predecessor’s record to become the largest in world history. This time, Indian voters must decide whether they want an inclusive country that embodies hope, or a divided one that promotes fear.

NEW DELHI – As India gears up for its general election, one must not lose sight of the sheer size of the exercise, which has been described as the “biggest humanly managed event in the world.” Starting on April 11 and ending on May 23, 900 million eligible voters (including 15 million first-time voters) will decide the fate of nearly 10,000 candidates representing over 500 political parties vying for the 545 seats in the Lok Sabha (House of the People). Every Indian general election beats its predecessor’s record to become the largest in world history. And none of the preceding 16 Lok Sabha elections has been as politically momentous as the coming one.

The election is staggered across seven phases that will take place between April 11 and May 19, with all ballots counted by May 23. Larger states such Uttar Pradesh in northern India, which sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha, vote in each of these phases, while others finish in a day. My own constituency of Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the southern state of Kerala, where I am campaigning for a third term, will vote in the third (and largest) phase of the election on April 23, along with 114 other constituencies from 14 states.

The Election Commission of India (ECI), the body tasked to carry out this monumental project, will set up one million polling stations and 2.33 million ballot units. They will be manned by over 11 million staff (many of whom will be drawn from various government agencies across the country) who will travel by whatever mode of transport – from buses and trains to elephants and camels – to reach the last voter. The ECI’s own stipulation that no voter should have to travel more than two kilometers to reach a polling station can give rise to some remarkable situations. In the last election, a polling booth had to be set up in a forest in Western India to cater to one resident voter. Another was set up in the Himalayas at 4,500 meters (15,000 feet) above sea level – the highest polling booth in the world.

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