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India Goes to the Polls

Indian voters hold up their voter ID cards as they wait to vote in Amritsar on May 13, 2009.(Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)
by Stephanie Valera
1 May 2009

by Angeline Thangaperakasam, Asia Society India Centre

MUMBAI, May 1, 2009 - The numbers are staggering. 714 million
eligible voters are hitting the polls in this year's Indian elections.
Voting is taking place in five phases over the course of four weeks,
with counting taking place on May 16. Just to give you a sense of the
enormity of the task at hand, the balloting is taking place in over
800,000 polling stations on over 1.3 million electronic voting
machines. Given the challenges, it is mind-boggling that the system
works consistently, year after year. Some say the elections in India
are really theater at the sub-continental level—a grand, colorful drama
of epic proportions.

A new parliament must be
constituted by June 2. The two main players, the incumbent coalition
led by the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have
many similarities. Both are keen to steer India toward closer relations
with the United States, while maintaining strong bilateral ties with
Russia and China. Both are broadly committed to economic liberalization
and India's continued rise as an economic powerhouse. However, neither
party has adequately addressed voters on how they plan to help India
cope with the economic downturn triggered by the global financial
crisis. Voters expect the government to deliver on promises for better
infrastructure, water security, and a stable economy, but what is
really driving this election coverage are the politics of personality.
This is playing out among the members of the Gandhi family—Sonia,
Rahul, Priyanka, and Varun—on the national level. We are also seeing
this regionally as key power brokers—such as Laloo Prasad Yadav in
Bihar, Jayalithaa in Tamil Nadu, and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh—pursue
their own political ambitions.

If we look at Mumbai, the
candidates are talking about better security and infrastructure for the
city, an improved public transportation system, and a directly elected,
and therefore accountable, Mayor.

Historically, South
Mumbai, home to some of India's wealthiest, has poor voter turnout. But
anger over last November's terror attacks, which culminated in street
protests, is expected to translate into more voting at the polls. The
attacks have also been a catalyst for increased direct political

Meera Sanyal, an independent candidate in South Mumbai, says the
attacks are her main reason for running. Sanyal, the CEO of ABN-AMRO,
represents a growing trend in Indian politics—the increasing
participation of the professional class.

The final trend we are watching is how candidates are using
technology, particularly the Internet, in this election. Some
candidates have started using social networking tools like Facebook and
Twitter to reach a younger audience; however, their use is still not
widespread in the election process. Compared with US President Barack
Obama's campaign to mobilize people using the internet, India's use of
text messages and mass emails has a long way to go. Some experts says
India's large, young, increasingly web-savvy population will likely
catch up soon. According to Indipepal.com, an online resource for
Indian political news and networking, "This election won't be about the
Internet, but the next one will." Stay tuned.