When India Votes

KERALA, INDIA – Beginning this month, the largest exercise of the democratic franchise in history will take place, as India n voters head to the polls to elect a new national parliament. They have done this 14 times since India gained its independence. Each time India has voted has been the world’s largest exercise in electoral democracy. India’s growing population keeps breaking its own record.

This time, the electorate includes 714 million voters, an increase of 43 million over the previous general election in 2004. Votes will be cast in 828,804 polling stations scattered throughout the country for over 5000 candidates from seven national political parties and several state and other parties. The process involves four million electoral officials and 6.1 million police and civilian personnel.

The numbers involved are so huge that the elections will be staggered over five phases, ending only on May 13, with electoral and security personnel being moved from state to state as polling is concluded in each place. Despite the phased voting, the counting takes place nationwide immediately after the last phase, and the results of the elections everywhere will be announced on May 16. A new parliament will be convened on June 2 to elect a national government to succeed the outgoing administration of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

India’s elections, conducted by the autonomous (and all-powerful) Election Commission of India , are an extraordinary event, and not just because of their sheer scale. It takes the felling of a sizeable forest to furnish enough paper for 714 million ballots, and every election has at least one story of officers battling through snow or jungle, or traveling by elephant and camel, to ensure that the democratic wishes of remote constituents are duly recorded. (There is even one polling booth for a single voter, who lives too far from civilization to travel to another polling station.)