As India begins its gigantic parliamentary voting exercise, it has the distinction of having conducted the world’s largest elections since starting the process in 1951-1952.

As an independent nation-state, India granted universal adult suffrage immediately after independence from Britain in 1947. It took the United States 144 years and the United Kingdom nearly a century to grant women the right to vote, something India did immediately.

Barely four years later, the country conducted its general election between October 25, 1951, and February 21, 1952, during which there were over 170 million eligible voters.

Every election in the last 72 years has been progressively bigger. An estimated 969 million are eligible to vote in 2024, with 215.8 million of them under the age of 30.

The number of under-30 voters in India is bigger than any other country, based on the electorate size of several nations. With over 215.8 million eligible voters in that demographic – 197.4 million in the age group 20-29 and 18.4 million in the age group 18-19 – that segment of the Indian electorate tops Indonesia, the third largest democracy in the world.

India’s total electorate is larger than the next seven large democracies combined, 858 million: Indonesia, the United States, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Russia, Mexico, and South Africa.

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Seventy-two million new voters were added to India’s electoral rolls since the last general election in 2019.

Votes are cast electronically using electronic voting machines at over 1.2 million polling stations across the country spread over geography as diverse as the Himalayas, remote islands, rain-soaked interiors and desert regions. Around 15 million security personnel will supervise the voting process. They will travel by train, helicopter, on horseback and by boats to fan out across the country.

Spread over 82 days from April 19 to June 1, with the results scheduled to be announced on June 4, the elections will decide whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party pull off a hattrick or if the significantly diminished Opposition makes a comeback.

But the best that is being expected is that the diffident opposition alliance delivers a sobriety check to Modi and the BJP juggernaut.

Opposition challenge

In an atmosphere where even some of the most strident critics of Modi and the BJP say with a measure of resignation that his victory is fait accompli and the only question is by how much, there are some signs of undercurrents of renewed vigour among his challengers.

Rahul Gandhi, former president of the Congress, exudes a measure of self-assurance that he believes results from insights into people’s minds gained from his two cross-country marches.

The BJP on its own aims to win 370 seats and with its allies, the National Democratic Alliance has set its sights on crossing 400 seats in the Lok Sabha. The Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance of 26 opposition parties hopes to unseat the prime minister.

Currently, the BJP alone has 303 seats in the 543-member parliament and 352 seats with its coalition partners.

The Congress, the BJP’s only direct national rival and once an unassailable political force for over five decades, has only 52 seats. Most reasonable political observers say that if the Congress manages to win even 100 seats on its own this time around, it should be considered an assertive comeback.

Between the two national parties there are more than 60 political parties, a majority of them regional ones with limited political footprints. This parliamentary election, like most previous ones, is expected to be a complex and convoluted affair.

Starting from now until May end, there will be relentless electioneering expected to be marked by recriminations among rivals that may degenerate into unvarnished name-calling – despite the code of conduct being enforced by the Election Commission.

Speeches bordering on hate are expected, notwithstanding Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar’s unambiguous warning.

Kumar has challenged the misgivings about bias within the Commission in favour of the ruling party while dealing with problematic speeches.

At a news conference to announce the election schedule on March 14, he said, "Wherever there will be a case of violation against anyone, no matter how renowned the politician may be, we will take action against him or her."

Issues on the table

There are several issues before the voters, including high unemployment, persistent inflation, a series of protests, including by the country’s politically consequential farmers, and an economically distressed population of over 800 million Indians who receive food subsidies.

The government often highlights free ration to nearly 60% of the population as an accomplishment. But economists say that the very fact that such a vast number of people have to get by on free ration means the economy has not worked favourably for a large majority.

According to the think tank, the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, the unemployment rate among those aged 15 years and above was 8.7% in December 2023. That represented a decline of 0.2% over November 2023. Experts at the think tank regard this level of unemployment as “fairly high”.

India's elections have been called a “festival of democracy”.

The Election Commission is expected to deploy 340,000 Central Armed Police Forces personnel along with state police forces in the seven-phase Lok Sabha elections and assembly polls in four states.

West Bengal, where elections are known to turn violent, will get 92,000 personnel, while 63,500 personnel will be deployed in the former state of Jammu and Kashmir.

That a peaceful election in the world’s largest democracy is a huge organisational challenge needs no overstating.

Mayank Chhaya is a veteran Indian journalist, author and filmmaker based in Chicago, currently in India covering the elections.

This is a Sapan News syndicated feature.