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Asia-pacific

Mammoth general election kicks off

Video by Fiona CAMERON

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2009-04-24

The world’s largest democracy goes to the polls Thursday in phase one of a staggered general election that will end May 13. Indian elections are massive, complex affairs, but at heart the issues and emotions are elemental.

The first stage of India’s general election kicks off Thursday with 17 states going to the polls in the biggest exercise of democratic will anywhere and at any time in human history.

 

About 714 million of India’s 1.1 billion-strong population - more than twice the population of the USA - is eligible to vote in an election of staggering scale, complexity and sheer human drama.

 

Candidates jostling for a position in India’s 543-seat Parliament hail from more than 1,000 registered political parties and include political stalwarts, upstarts, Bollywood stars, cricketers, upper caste members, as well as representatives of the lowest rungs of India’s caste-ridden society.

 

“An Indian general election is a fairly massive exercise,” says Uday Bhaskar, former director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses. “This year, there is a larger demographic base because more younger people are joining voting lists and the older population is living longer and is more active than before. In 2009, the demographic is also more connected because of technology - TV, cell phones, and the Internet.”

 

Loudspeakers, lorries – and Facebook

 

To woo this vast sea of humanity, political parties use posters, mass rallies, vehicles rigged with blaring loudspeakers, SMS texts, tweets, blogs, social networking sites and, of course, the characteristically Indian song-and-dance routine.

 

In what was widely considered a coup in this music-mad nation, the ruling Congress party bought the exclusive rights to Jai Ho (“Let Victory Prevail"),  the title track of the Oscar-winning film, Slumdog Millionaire. The song was promptly translated into a number of Indian languages.

 

 

Not to be outdone, supporters of the opposition BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) unveiled a parody of the popular track titled Bhay Ho (“Let fear prevail”). The music videos have been making the rounds on YouTube and Facebook.

 

 

But in a country where large swathes of the population have no access to potable water, much less computers, experts say the new media influence on Indian politics is relatively limited.

 

"This is still a very urban phenomenon,” says Siddharth Bhatia, editorial page editor of The Daily News and Analysis, a Mumbai newspaper. “I don’t think we should dismiss it, but really we’re nowhere on the Obama scale,” he says, referring to the US president’s use of the Internet on the campaign trail.

 

Two main parties and a ‘Third Front’

 

While the spectrum and scope of the 2009 general election can be mind-boggling, at its heart the poll pitches the Congress Party-led ruling coalition against a coalition led by the opposition BJP.

 

The Congress leads the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) coalition while the BJP leads the NDA (National Democratic Alliance).

 

Most experts predict that neither the Congress nor the BJP will bag enough seats to win an outright majority. Once the poll results are announced in mid-May, the post-electoral scene is likely to be dominated by regional parties negotiating to join a Congress or BJP-led government.

 

A third outcome could be the formation of government by a bloc of smaller regional parties – or a “Third Front,” as the Indian media describes it.

 

It’s the economy, not the Mumbai attacks

 

The elections come months after the Nov. 2008 Mumbai attacks, when a handful of gunmen stormed some of the city’s landmark sites in a brazen assault that exposed grave security lapses, enraged the population, embarrassed the ruling Congress party, and fueled speculation of a likely Congress routing in the upcoming polls.

 

But more than four months later, some analysts believe the Mumbai attacks are not, in fact, a major national political issue. “Unfortunately, Indian memory is very short,” said Bhaskar. “It’s one of many issues facing voters, but certainly not a central one.”

 

Regional issues are critical in a vast, diverse country that includes booming cities that are home to India’s new millionaires as well as destitute villages where farmers, unable to break the cycle of rural poverty and debt, sometimes resort to suicide.

 

But the economy – or at the very least, the economic well-being of the populace – remains an important issue across India.

 

In 2004, the then-ruling BJP lost the general election when the party slogan “India Shining” turned into a parody of the state’s failure to improve the lot of India’s 700 million-odd rural population.

 

This time, the global economic recession has helped tone down the economic gloating during the campaign season. The Congress in particular has strategically touted the rural welfare programmes that it has launched, especially its massive debt write-off for small farmers.

 

“Right now, at this very moment, I would say the Congress still has a slight advantage,” says Bhaskar. But he warns that Indian elections are hard to predict. “India is going through a very complex socio-political and economic churning process,” he notes.

 

And so, come mid-May, the eyes of the nation – and the world – will be glued to the Indian stage to see just who has won the mandate to govern the world’s largest democracy.

 

Date created : 2009-04-16

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