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 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 participation.

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, an online resource for Indian political news and networking, "This election won't be about the Internet, but the next one will." Stay tuned.