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India’s Democratic Pageant

NEW DELHI – Last week, India’s independent Election Commission announced the dates for the next general election. The world’s largest single exercise of the democratic franchise will take place over a staggering 37 days in nine “phases,” some a week apart, from April 7 to May 12. Some 814 million eligible voters will elect, for the 16th time, a new parliament and government, casting their ballots at more than 930,000 polling stations – after choosing from an estimated 15,000 candidates belonging to more than 500 political parties.

Democracy, of course, is a process, not an event. But India’s elections – with their outsize logistical and security challenges, myriad languages, and candidates identified not just by name but also by electoral symbols to aid illiterate voters – are events that evoke admiration each time they occur.

It takes a sizeable forest to furnish enough paper for posters, electoral rolls, and ballots. And the thousands of electronic voting machines that are manufactured in India can survive heat, dust, and power failures – and retain their results safely until the votes are ready to be counted, sometimes weeks later. (Because no votes are counted until the last ones are cast, counting day is May 16.) Moreover, every election has at least one story of officials battling through snow or jungle to ensure that the preferences of remote constituents are duly recorded.

Yet there are larger issues behind the electoral spectacle that must not be overlooked. India’s elections have, over the years, deepened and broadened the composition of the political establishment. Sociologists have analyzed the class composition of India’s legislatures and traced the change from a post-independence Parliament dominated by highly educated professionals to one populated by today’s motley crew of MPs, who are more truly representative of India’s rural heartland.