The most dramatic and divisive Indian election for decades is finally drawing to a close. Narendra Modi may be the favourite to win the poll, but ordinary Indians have cast doubt over the ability of any party to bring the country’s problems truly under control.
It’s the world’s largest democratic election. More than 814 million voters across 543 constituencies – so large it’s held in nine phases spanning more than a month. Almost half a million Indians have voted from the Gulf, one of the country’s largest sources of remittances.
With the second-biggest population and one of the most significant emerging economies, India’s election is not one many can afford to ignore. And now, only days until the results of the 16th national election for the Lok Sabha - or the lower house of the national parliament - are announced on May 16, it is time to sit up and watch.
And what a show it has been. India has had everything an election could possibly throw up. Celebrities, including former cricket heroes (who are literally worshipped in this cricket-crazy country), movie stars and top businessmen have entered the fray; candidates, including prime ministerial, have been assaulted; plush multi-million-rupee campaign vans have been revealed; scores of voters have complained their names are missing from the electoral roll or polling machines have broken down; and, tragically, religious violence has killed dozens.
There are several firsts as well too. More than 100 million people have been eligible to vote for the first time; a third party is threatening to make forming an outright government nearly impossible; a “none of the above” option has been added to ballot papers; and slick advertising campaigns have transformed the election into a presidential-style race.
This is the longest and most expensive election in India’s history, with the Election Commission of India estimating the total bill will add up to $577m just to run the polling. Such is the security drain, the national cricket competition, the IPL, has been played abroad.
Political parties have spent $5bn on campaigning, according to the Centre for Media Studies, the second-largest total in world history, behind only the $7bn American election in 2012.
In tune with the surge in spending, this election has been far more akin to a US presidential campaign than the Indian Westminster system that usually sees the contest played out between parties.
The hefty budgets and man-versus-man campaigning has been pushed by the business-backed opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has pitted its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi against the Indian National Congress’ Rahul Gandhi.
As is customary, the Congress has not officially declared that Gandhi will be prime minister if the party wins power. The 44-year-old, whose mother Sonia is the party president and grandmother Indira Gandhi and father Rajiv Gandhi were former prime ministers (both of whom were assassinated), seems uncomfortable in the personal face-off with Modi. He has made far fewer public and media appearances compared to the controversial, yet dominating, 63-year-old Modi.
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