On April 7, the world’s largest democracy began nationwide parliamentary elections, which will see Prime Minister Manmohan Singh step down from power after ten years.
The north-eastern states of Tripura and Assam kicked off voting for the first phase of the general election on Monday, and nine more rounds will take place across the country, staggered over a period of roughly five weeks and concluding on May 12th.
In total, 543 seats of the Lok Sabha (the lower house of parliament) are up for grabs; all votes will be counted and the results announced on May 16th. The election has been forecast as a race between the governing Indian National Congress party, led by Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, against the opposing favourite Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi.
However, an anti-corruption party, the Aam Aadmi (Common Man’s) Party, which has done well in local polls in Delhi, also poses a challenge against the main parties. Meanwhile, smaller fringe and regional parties may become significant if no party gains an overall majority.
More then 814 million voters will have a ballot in the general election, which has so far been dominated by issues surrounding high inflation, unemployment, and widespread corruption. While turnout in the polls have been in the past around 55%, election commission officials have stated that they expect a high turnout this year – possibly around 65%.
Around 930,000 polling stations will be used and for the first time, the ballot will have a None of the Above (Nota) option for those who do not wish to cast a vote for any of the listed candidates.
According to a survey published by CNN-IBN and Lokniti at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in India, the BJP are the favourite to win a large portion of seats; but crucially, the Hindu nationalist party are also set to fall short of an outright majority.
A charismatic yet controversial figure, the BJP’s leader Narendra Modi has led a strong presidential-style campaign, promising to revive India’s faltering economy and finally sweep out the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, which has dominated the country’s government since independence.
However, he has also faced repeated allegations, even from Prime Minister Singh, that he either encouraged or failed to stop a massacre against Muslims in 2002 in the state of Gujarat, where he serves as Chief Minister. A Supreme Court inquiry did not find any evidence of his involvement and Modi has fiercely denied all charges.
Meanwhile, the centre-left Congress party has promised a wave of new welfare schemes as well as ‘inclusive growth’ if it is re-elected to power; however, a reclusive figure in politics, Rahul Gandhi has struggled to gain voters and surveys have predicted a defeat for the ruling party, which has completed two terms since 2004.
In Uttar Pradesh, which offers the largest amount of seats as India’s most populous state, the BJP and its allies expected to pick up 36% of the vote, while the Congress party and its allies are predicted to achieve only 16%, keeping them on track for their worst electoral performance yet.
Yet if the BJP do not win a majority, some of India’s most powerful regional parties will be expected to join them to build a government coalition, a process which would stall Modi’s aims to bring about reform as quickly as possible if elected.
To find out more, the Guardian has put together an interactive guide to India’s elections, which can be found here.