India is witnessing the world’s largest democratic exercise. It got kicked off yesterday with the beginning of the general elections that is being dubbed as the ‘mother” of all poll battles in the billion plus nation. Ninety-one Lok Sabha constituencies spread across 18 states and two Union Territories voted in the first-phase on Thursday in the poll which, barring some incidents of sporadic violence was by and large peaceful. Fate of 1,279 candidates in the Lok Sabha polls was sealed in the first phase.
The mammoth size of the exercise, proudly proclaimed as India’s festival of democracy, could be gauged from the fact that, in the first phase alone, as many as 140 million voters of the total 900 million voters were eligible to vote. 900 million voters mean more than three times the population of United States. Voting was also held for Assembly polls in Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Odisha. The highest turnout of 81 per cent was witnessed in West Bengal where the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) is locked in a fierce contest with a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Voting for the 543 Lok Sabha seats would be held in six more phases: April 18, April 23, April 29, May 6, May 12 and May 19. Counting would take place on May 23. The 91 seats that went to polls in the first phase are expected to set the trend for what is to follow in India which has opted for the system of parliamentary democracy some seven decades back. Yesterday’s key contests included the one in the orange city of Nagpur in Maharashtra where senior Union Minister Nitin Gadkari of the ruling BJP is locked in a contest with Nana Patole of the Congress. Prominent among other contests were those involving Union Ministers V K Singh in Ghaziabad, Mahesh Sharma in Gautam Budh Nagar and Satyapal Singh in Baghpat, all in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest and politically key state.
These are elections for the 17th Lok Sabha, the Lower House of Parliament, The first general election was held in 1952, two years after India formally turned into a republic and five years after it gained independence from the British rule. With India having the size of a sub-continent, the exercise has to be held in several phases to ensure a free and fair poll.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been swift off the blocks, campaigning in nearly twice the number of states as opposition leader Rahul Gandhi since March-end. Both Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi are contesting from Uttar Pradesh with the Congress chief also contesting from a second seat-Wayanad in the southern state of Kerala. A highlight of the exercise for past decade or so is that a citizen can press the None of The Above (NOTA) option. NOTA option can be exercised by pressing the last button on the EVM if the voter does not like any of the candidates in the fray.
Interestingly, experts say that the Lok Sabha polls are also world’s biggest social media election as over the next five weeks, outside the hot and dusty campaign rallies, much of the war will be fought on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram. Social media platforms have appointed India grievance officers. Social media enable parties to slice, dice and distort existing content. The Election Commission of India, which overlooks the conduct of polls, has come out with a series of guidelines to check the misuse of social media.
Which party or a combine of parties will be able to form the next government would be known on May 23 when the votes would be counted in the polls being fiercely fought in which issues of national security, jobs, agrarian distress and welfare of the poor are among the prominent issues.
Script: Sunil Gatade, Political Commentator