India Counts the Votes

Residents of Dharavi, Mumbai's largest poor neighborhood, lining up to vote in May 2009. (Asia Society India Centre)

MUMBAI, May 8, 2009 - With tens of millions of ballots cast in India's month-long election, officials are now sorting the results that will determine the country's next government.

The world's largest democracy, and second most populous country, needs to choose a new parliament by June 2. The main fight is between the ruling Congress party and its allies, and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Experts say an outright majority is unlikely for any party and a coalition is expected—but right now it's a game of wait and see.

Following the devastating attacks in Mumbai last November, thousands took to the streets here demanding change and accountability. What was surprising is that the demonstrators included many people from South Mumbai's middle and upper class, who are historically apolitical. Analysts expected this momentum would translate into high voting numbers some five months later in this election. But what actually happened is that Mumbai failed to sustain its momentum—instead voter turnout was only 41 percent, down from 47 percent in 2004, and among the lowest in the nation.

According to the Associated Press, overall turnout was approximately 59 to 60 percent. Meanwhile, New Delhi, the nation's capital and another large metropolitan city, registered a 53 percent turnout, its highest in 20 years.

Experts say one reason for Mumbai's low numbers is because balloting took place at the end of April during a holiday weekend when many left town. April and May are traditionally the hottest months in the year and humidity on voting day, April 30, was at 88 percent—another factor. In fact, most voting took place in the morning hours after polls opened at 7:00 am.

Here in Mumbai, there is an email and text message making the rounds that says it all. Asked, why the poor turnout? The joke gives its top reasons, including: voting clashed with salsa class, no valet parking, or says no real issues were on the ballot—like gym membership rates.

I guess we'll find out soon when the ballots are done being counted.

Editor's note: India's election resulted in a resounding victory for the Congress Party. See related content: A New Indian Government.