The world's largest
democracy is heading for the polls this month. India will hold its 15th
parliamentary elections since gaining independence from Britain in 1947. Neither
of the two major political parties, Congress or Bhartiya Janata Party, the
B-J-P, expects to get a majority in the elections, so India is moving toward
another coalition government.
Polling to elect a new 545-member Lok
Sabha, India's lower house of parliament, will run in five phases from 16 April
to 13 May. 714 million voters are eligible to cast ballots. It is the largest
democratic voting exercise ever conducted, not surprising since India's
electorate represents over a tenth of the world's population.
last five years, the ruling Congress party, headed by Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh, has held together a coalition called the United Progressive Alliance, or
UPA. The UPA was formed soon after the 2004 general elections when the previous
coalition headed by the Bhartiya Janata Party, or B-J-P, was defeated. That
coalition was titled the National Democratic Alliance, NDA.
The upcoming elections are significant because they mark the first time that
a coalition government has completed an uninterrupted five-year term.
Ralph Nurnberger, adjunct professor of
international relations at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., says India
has been able to establish a democratic system successfully.
“It is outstanding that India has been able to maintain its democratic system
since independence in 1947, and obviously it serves as a model for the rest of
the world, particularly the developing world, as an example of including people
in the representative form of government.”
The Congress-led alliance is
running on what it claims is a record of progress and its secular character.
During four of its five years in office, growth rates in India were well over 8%
annually. Even now, amid a global slump, India is the world's second fastest
Opposition BJP's prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani
says his party ensures good governance, economic development and security for
all. The party also promises a tougher anti-terror law. India has seen several
militant attacks across the country in recent years including the attack on
Mumbai last year.
Kumar, a former professor of diplomacy at Jawahar Lal Nehru University in New
Delhi, says the Congress-led coalition has a better chance of returning to power
once votes are cast. “As of now the prospects of Congress seem to be better,
partly because of the last five years. There are quite a few things which the
Congress can be said to have achieved, and which have found a favorable response
from the people of India as a whole."
The Congress Party, led by the
Nehru-Gandhi family, ruled India for 50 years following independence from
Britain. Sonya Gandhi, wife of former prime minister, the late Rajiv Gandhi (no
relation to Mahatma Gandhi), is now president of the Congress party. Their son
Rahul Gandhi is a parliamentary candidate and is attracting huge crowds of young
But India is now completing a decade in which coalitions
dominated by one or the other political party have held power. Analysts say
there is nothing wrong with coalitions, which ensure that all regions of the
country are represented in the central (federal) government
when India held its first parliamentary elections following British colonial
rule, many people expressed doubts about giving Indians, many of them
illiterate, the right to vote. Looking back over 57 years, Professor Satish
Kumar says Indian democratic institutions have withstood the test of
“Indian democratic institutions have
worked wonderfully well,” says Prof. Satish Kumar. “It is the largest democracy;
it is the most heterogeneous democracy. It is a democracy with a multiple
religions, languages, ethnic groups and all kinds of other diversities, and yet
the country has managed to accommodate all of them into a system where gradually
all of them are feeling that they have a voice in the running of the
Professor Ralph Nurberger echoes these views. “That is truly
astounding, particularly in a country as diverse as India in terms of religion,
ethnic make-up and everything else. It is remarkable that everyone is willing to
accept as a basic policy - a democratic form of government. And that is truly to
the credit of the people of India.
Nearly four million officials will
conduct the elections, and there will be more than 900,000 polling booths, all
fitted with electronic voting machines. Analysts say all pre-poll forecasts
point to a return of the Congress-led coalition Whatever the outcome, India's
fifteenth parliamentary all-electronic elections mark a milestone in that
nation's democratic tradition.
This report was written by Subhash Vohra
and voiced by Steve Ember