Your field guide to the 2014 Indian elections

REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
A security personnel stands next to the symbol of India’s ruling Congress party, during a rally addressed by Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi ahead of the 2014 general elections, in New Delhi.  Photo: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

One-sixth of the world’s entire population will head to the polls this spring to cast their vote in India’s 16th parliamentary exercises. The hype surrounding the elections has been simmering for some time — India’s economy is in a huge slump, and ongoing domestic issues like unemployment, corruption and safety are plaguing the population from Kashmir in the north to Kanyakumari in the south.

Then last fall, Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujurat, announced his candidacy for prime minister. A new political party that grew out of an anticorruption movement, the Aam Aadmi Party, emerged from seemingly nowhere as a potential game changer in determining the outcome of the elections. And Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family that has been at the helm of Indian politics since independence from the British in 1947, is also running for prime minister — without a whole lot of experience behind him.

What this all means is that the elections this year are some of the most important and highly contested in India’s history. Below, a crash course on the fundamentals you need to know to understand what’s at stake.

When are the elections and how does it all work?

Voting in India’s general elections will take place from April 7 to May 12. These elections take place once every five years. The point is to elect members of parliament into the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament. How the Lok Sabha looks after voting then influences who will be the country’s next prime minister.

The people running for a seat in the Lok Sabha do so from different constituencies around the country — think of them as kind of like the Indian version of American congressional districts. India has 543 of them. The person who wins the most votes in a constituency is elected as that constituency’s representative for the Lok Sabha.

So really, as Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace writes, “the ‘election’ is actually a series of 543 discrete constituency elections. The party, or coalition of parties, that manages to cobble together a majority of parliamentary seats forms the government.”

Wait, hold on. First off, why are the elections spread over two months? That’s confusing.

Yes, well remember, India has a huge population. The number of people eligible to vote this year is at its highest ever — 814.5 million people. That’s more than the entire continent of Europe! If everyone voted at the exact same time, that’d be messy.

Instead, the country has divided the voting process into nine different phases. Some states vote on certain days, other states vote on other days. The results of the voting from all the phases will be announced on May 16.

Okay, that makes sense, I guess. So what political parties are staking their claims here?

India has traditionally had two major political parties, the Indian National Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. The Congress Party is the incumbent party and is left-of-center. The BJP is the main opposition party that’s right-of-center.

A not-often-publicly-proclaimed understanding is that the politics of these two parties is actually not at all that different except for the fact that the BJP is known for its “Hindutva,” or Hindu nationalist, identity. Its ideological parent is a group called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS. An older, albeit still relevant, analysis from the BBC pares down the controversy surrounding the RSS nicely: “Critics of the organization say that its hardline ideology is based on intolerance towards religious minorities.”

The Congress party, in comparison, touts a more secular image. It has ruled India for 53 of the last 65 years. Yet it’s widely speculated its governance is about to come to an end. Recent polls suggest Narendra Modi, the BJP candidate for prime minister, is the most popular politician in India right now.

But the political parties don’t stop there. India has dozens of regional parties that wield significant power in certain states and could potentially take away votes from either Congress or the BJP. Often they attract voters on the basis of caste or religion.

Then there’s the Aam Aadmi, or Common Man, Party. It was born just in 2012. Instead of playing with the identity politics pervasive across India, it was founded on the basis of one goal — rooting out corruption. It took Delhi by storm this past December when it won the second most number of seats during state assembly elections. It later formed the Delhi government with the support of the Congress party (an example of how a coalition of parties might work to push one party to power). Arvind Kejriwal, the face of the Aam Aadmi Party, or AAP, became Delhi’s chief minister.

Then on February 14, after 49 days in power, Kejriwal resigned after Delhi’s legislative assembly wouldn’t pass his anticorruption bill. Some saw his resign as a failure of AAP; others saw it as a strategic move to push Kejriwal into the bigger game — the fight for prime minister of India.

Wow, okay. So Kejriwal, Modi, and Gandhi. What do I need to know about these people?

They’re the three people attracting the most attention in their respective runs for prime minister.

Arvind Kejriwal, 45, is the “firebrand activist” leading the Aam Aadmi Party. The former tax collector launched AAP in November 2012. He often sports a white Gandhi topi. The hat has become a national symbol of AAP.

Kejriwal briefly served as Delhi’s chief minister after assembly elections in December. He’s now contesting for a seat in the Lok Sabha from Varanasi, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Observers view it as a direct threat to Narendra Modi, who is also contesting from Varanasi.

Narendra Modi, 63, is the current chief minister of the state of Gujarat and the BJP’s candidate for prime minister. He’s currently serving his fourth term as chief minister, and has been lauded for bringing economic reforms to Gujarat and pushing through major projects there since he took office. The state is one of the most developed in all of India.

But Modi is also one of the most controversial politicians in Indian history. He’s volunteered for the RSS, the Hindu nationalist group many in the country view as a hardline, extremist organization. In 2002, under his watch, an outbreak of rioting broke out in a largely Muslim town in Gujurat after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was torched. Fifty-nine Hindus died. But as Jason Burke of the Guardian writes, “Of the thousand or more killed and hundreds of thousands forced out of their homes in the chaos that followed, most were Muslims.”

Modi was never charged in connection with the violence, although some of his close associates were. His history and attachment to the Gujarat pogrom is why many observers wonder where the “Muslim vote” will go during this election.

Rahul Gandhi, 43, is the vice president of the Congress Party and its candidate for prime minister. His mother, Sonia Gandhi, is the party’s president. Rahul Gandhi is a sitting member of parliament (MP) from the district of Amethi, in Uttar Pradesh, but has never been in the public eye much before this year’s election season. Many observers doubt his ability to lead the country. As Andrew North of the BBC writes, “In his only television interview so far (his only interview in the 10 years since he became an MP), Mr. Gandhi gave the impression he was doing the job because his birth gave him no choice, rather than because of ambition. And his performance was widely slated.”

…And this is why this year’s elections in India are troubling to some, fascinating to others, and undoubtedly, will steer the country in a new direction.

This piece was originally published on April 3, 2014, on Link TV’s World News website.

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