World’s largest democracy starts voting this week

Dear Editor,
India, the world’s largest democracy, commences the globe’s largest election exercise starting this week. Some 968 million voters are eligible to cast ballots in 543 constituencies in the lower house or Lok Sabha. Unlike Guyana which has a PR system, India has a constituency system of choosing elected representatives that is similar to electing USA’s House of representatives. The candidate with the largest number of votes in constituency is the winner. The number of voters in a constituency is roughly 1.78 million, more than twice the population of all of Guyana; the number of people actually dwelling in a constituency is roughly 2.5 million. The 543 constituencies are spread over 28 states and eight Union Territories. The largest state in terms of seats is Uttar Pradesh where most Indian Guyanese originate; UP sends 80 members to the House. Bihar and Tamil Nadu, two other states from where Guyanese originated, sends 40 and 39 reps respectively. The smallest state or union territory sends one elected rep to parliament.
Because the exercise is so huge, voting is difficult to be held on one day all over the country in all 543 seats. Voting is spread over seven phases (dates) with voters in different parts of the country having the opportunity to cast ballots (in a different set of seats) only on one fixed date determined by the Election Commission of India (ECI). The ECI employs some 200,000 staff, inclusive of security agents, to manage this mammoth exercise. Staff are transported to various locales to conduct and or supervise the elections and the process takes days.
Unlike in Guyana, voting is by machines, EVMs. The first phase of voting is on April 18 and the last of the seven phases is on June 1. Counting of the ballots will take place on June 4. The EVMs will be under the security of armed forces. Political parties and candidates are allowed observers to guard the machines that are tamper proof. The counting takes an hour.
The election contest pits the ruling BJP and its NDA allies (several regional parties) against the Congress (led by Gandhi clan) and INDIA bloc allies (two dozen regional allies). Opinion polls suggest the BJP will win a third term. The BJP, led by Narendra Modi, won a majority on its own in 2014 and 2019 with its allies padding up its majority. Modi is very charismatic and telegenic with approval ratings exceeding 75%. The opposition has not projected a leader although Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Gandhi clan, is largely viewed as the face and lead of the opposition. Modi leads him by 21% (51% to 30%) in the latest national opinion survey conducted a few days ago. This writer traveled all over India in December, January, and February and found similar poll findings among voters. The writer is set to return to India later this week for another assessment of the outcome of the election.
Except for a couple surveys, opinions favor the BJP for another term. The BJP claims it will win 350 seats on its own and 400 for the NDA alliance. Gandhi says the opposition alliance will win the election. This writer feels many seats will be close with NDA prevailing; 400 seats look tough.
There is strict control over the elections. Unlike say Guyana’s GECOM, the ECI is extremely powerful. Unlike in Guyana or most other nations, the government does not fix dates for elections. The ECI determines dates of all elections – nationally, statewide, municipal, and villages. And the ECI becomes a de facto kind of power instructing the government (as well as opposition) and a candidate what it can and cannot do during the campaign (from date of announcement of election till the next government is sworn in) under its power of “Model Code of Conduct”. No new policies and expenditures can be undertaken by the government. The ECI can disqualify candidates if they violate the model code of conduct and can also confiscate large quantities funds belonging to a party or candidates; there are strict spending limits on campaigns although hard to enforce in such a large country. Political parties and candidates cannot offer incentives to voters to cast ballots including the offer of transportation to the polling station, and they cannot distribute gifts to voters. Political parties can file complaints to the ECI if they feel the code of conduct is violated. The ECI, through its “investigating and arrest powers” is empowered to seize money and handouts destined for distribution to voters; police can question and arrest campaign workers (or anyone) found with large amounts of cash. And tens of millions of rupees (equivalent of millions of American dollars) were confiscated last week from campaign workers of a candidate; they were arrested. There were also seisures of other funds from raids by the ECI agents on offices or properties of candidates and campaign staff. The police, empowered by ECI, can also conduct raids on and seize funds of individuals not seeking office if it is suspected they are holding the money for use in the elections. In previous elections, tens of millions in equivalent of American dollars were seized by the ECI and deposited into the treasury of the government.
The world is watching the largest electoral exercise in history.

Yours sincerely,
Vishnu Bisram (PhD)