India: The world's most remarkable election

As the largest democracy on the planet prepares to elect a new government, Andrew Buncombe reports on the choices facing the 714 million voters

From the mountain heights of Kashmir to the palm-fringed beaches of Kerala, from Nagaland in the remote north-east to the Maharashtra heartland, India will this week throw itself headlong into the world's largest and most extraordinary election.

Here, in the planet's biggest, if imperfect, democracy, candidates from 1,055 parties will be seeking the support of more than 714 million registered voters – a number that has jumped by 40 million since the last election in 2004. Across India's 35 states and "union territories" there will be 800,000 polling stations ready to receive voters, while six million police will be on duty to try to maintain order. Such is the sheer scale of this enterprise that the voting is to be staggered over a month with five separate polling days. The result will be announced in mid-May.

Among some of the leading players in this political carnival are a movie star turned politician, whose rallies lure countless thousands of the poor, desperate for him to transform his on-screen Robin Hood heroism into real-life action; a "Dalit Queen", whose support among so-called Untouchables could carry her to the prime minister's official residence; a chief minister whose state saw a massacre of Muslims yet who has risen to become a potential leader of his party; and an elegant, Italian-born widow who holds the position as India's chief power broker. There are wealthy and poor, old and young, high-caste and low, nationalists and those who want to separate from India. There are those who preach peace, and those who promise violence. There are dozens of languages and many different scripts.

But if an Indian election provides a window in the extraordinary diversity of the subcontinent, it should not distract from the fundamental point that this is a contest for power. The centrist Congress Party, which heads the current ruling coalition, is battling to fight off a challenge not just from the main opposition, the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but also from a third front of communist and left parties and even a fourth front that includes disgruntled former allies. Some analysts believe this election – the 15th since the country won independence in 1947 – is the most open in recent years.

What is clear is that the election is taking place against a backdrop of uncertainty and anxiety for India. While this emerging nation with its middle vision fixed on superpower status has not suffered the same sort of economic downturn as the West, many middle-class professions in the IT and software industry have for the first time faced redundancies and layoffs.

At the same time there is mounting concern about the threat of terrorism. Last year's Mumbai attacks saw more than 160 people killed by militants from Pakistan, and the issue of how to avoid a repeat of such incidents has dominated much public debate. India's relationship with Pakistan, which has never been warm, but which in recent years had been enjoying something of a thaw, has effectively now reverted to a stand-off. Meanwhile, the bodies of nine of the militants who carried out the attack – another man was captured alive – remain in a Mumbai mortuary waiting to be claimed.

"I will be voting BJP. The risk of terrorism is high and the Congress does not support a strict law against terrorism," said Praveen Rana, an Indian air force officer. "The problem for India is that 60 per cent of the population is poor and they vote in their own interests. The middle classes don't care about politics. That is why we only have bad politicians."

This criticism of politicians, particularly their alleged corruption, is a constant among supporters of all parties. In a country where bribery is embedded in everyday interactions – from getting a job or a canister of cooking gas to paying off a policeman – ordinary voters are disappointed but not surprised at reports of corruption. Indeed, Indian newspapers have been full of such stories. Just this week, police in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, parts of which go to the polls on Thursday, uncovered wads of cash worth about £3m in a supposed "votes for notes" scandal. One regional watchdog claims £137m will be spent in the last few days of campaigning to pay for inducements. Many ordinary people believe instinctively that politicians are only interested in themselves.

"Nobody will help the poor. I have

to work for my survival," said Krishaiah, a wizened flower-seller from the southern city of Hyderabad, touting strings of blooms alongside a noisy, traffic-filled road. "Neither the Congress nor anybody else can help."

That people have such distrust of politicians ought not to be a surprise. Of the 543 MPs returned to the Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament, in 2004, a total of 128 had outstanding criminal charges against them. Of those alleged offences, 84 were for murder while other allegations included kidnapping, extortion and robbery. "[To be prevented from standing] the law requires a person to be convicted but a lot of these cases just drag on and on," said Anil Bairwal, coordinator of the Association for Democratic Reforms, a watchdog group that has collected these statistics. "By the time it comes to court, the person may have retired or passed on."

Leading the Congress's re-election campaign is party chairman Sonia Gandhi, the autocratic widow of assassinated former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, and prime minister Manmohan Singh, a quiet, uncharismatic economist credited with kick-starting India's development but who has taken the country into a closer alignment with the US. Mrs Gandhi's quietly spoken 38-year-old son, Rahul, a great-grandson of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, is already a major presence in the party and is widely tipped as a future prime minister. The Congress, which bought the rights to the Slumdog Millionaire hit "Jai Ho" (Let There Be Victory) to use as its theme song, has sought to highlight the country's progress over the past five years.

Leading the BJP is the octogenarian L K Advani, a man who despite, or perhaps because of, his age has pitched himself as a politician of vitality and new ideas. He has even started blogging. Despite the ascension within the party's hierarchy of figures such Narendra Modi, a right-wing ideologue and chief minister of Gujarat, which in 2002 saw a massacre of Muslims, the BJP has tried to position itself towards the centre, arguing that it has moved away from its nationalist past.

But its dilemma of whether or not to give up the so-called Hindutva vote was underlined by the recent antics of Varun Gandhi, also a great-grandson of Nehru but the black sheep of the dynasty. Campaigning for the BJP in India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, Mr Gandhi, who falsely claimed he had earned two degrees in London, vowed to cut off the heads of Muslims – an election promise that might have pleased Hindu extremists but which saw him thrown in jail and held under anti-terrorism laws.

Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 MPs, was once a Congress stronghold but has since been controlled by two caste-based parties. The current chief minister, Mayawati, draws her support from Dalits and has gradually built her support elsewhere in the country. Brimming with ambition and with a penchant for commissioning super-sized statues of herself, the diminutive Mayawati has been tipped as a possible premier if she takes her Bahujan Samaj Party into an alliance with left parties in a third front.

In recent weeks, a fourth front has also emerged, made up of regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party, another caste-based party from Uttar Pradesh, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal from impoverished Bihar. While this grouping is unlikely to be able to form a government by itself, its fortunes have been boosted by the support of Konidela Shiva Shankara Vara Prasad, better known as Chiranjeevi, a popular Telugu-language movie star, who last year formed his own party in Andhra Pradesh. The larger-than-life actor has drawn huge crowds as his campaign tours the state. "Reforms need to take place," he said. "Rural areas have been neglected."

Pundits predict that whichever single party emerges with the most votes, it will be forced to make a coalition to form a government. This time around, there have been few pre-poll alliances with most parties opting to see how they stand in a month's time. "The real election will start on 16 May," said the veteran journalist and political analyst M J Akbar. "[The coalitions] are all marriages of convenience. There are no clear ideologies."

In a region where democracy has often struggled, it is perhaps a compliment to India's enduring civilian rule that few see radical changes, regardless of whichever of the major parties forms the next government. What the election does promise is terrific political theatre. Pull up a chair.

The India election in numbers

States

West Bengal: Bengal has been under Communist rule since gaining independence, and hammer and sickle flags jostle for space with images of Bollywood stars.

Kashmir: The most densely militarised place on Earth and still at the centre of South Asian tension.

Uttar Pradesh: India's largest and most important state, with a population of over 190 million. It is the electoral base of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, with Rahul and Sonia Gandhi both having constituencies here.

Gujarat: Fast becoming India's business hub, Gujarat is responsible for the production of about 90 per cent of India's required Soda Ash. It also provides about 66 per cent of all the salt used in India.

Kerala: A survey in 2005 ranked Kerala as the least corrupt state in the country. At 91 per cent, it also has the highest literacy rate in India.

Bihar: Nearly 85 per cent of Bihar's population is rural.

Haryana: At 29,887 rupees (£410), the state of Haryana has the third highest per capita income in India. It also has the largest number of rural crorepatis (similar to millionaires when taking into account the cost of living) in India.

Himachal Pradesh: In a 1981 census it was found that Hindus made up 95 per cent of the state population.

Maharashtra: Contributing to 15 per cent of India's industrial output and 13.2 per cent of its GDP in 2005-06, Maharashtra is the richest state in India.

Punjab: With just 6.16 per cent of the population living in poverty, Punjab is considered the least impoverished of India's states.

Nagaland: Over 85 per cent of the population of Nagaland are directly dependant on agriculture.

Orissa: Nearly half of the 38 million people living in Orissa are classed as living below the poverty line.

Tamil Nadu: More than 10 per cent of India's businesses are based in Tamil Nadu – the largest number for any state.

Sikkim: With only 540,000 inhabitants, Sikkim is India's least populous state. At 76 people per square kilometre, it also one of the least densely populated.

Mizoram: Christians make up 87 per cent of Mizoram's population – one of only three Indian states with a Christian majority.

Karnataka: With GDP growth of 56.2 per cent and per capita GDP growth of 43.9 per cent, Karnataka has been the fastest growing state over the past decade.

Arunachal Pradesh: The one million-strong population of Arunachal Pradesh is grouped into more than a hundred tribes and sub-tribes.

Manipur: A politically sensitive area, foreigners wishing to visit must get a permit which lasts up to ten days. Visitors are required to travel in groups of four on arranged tours with authorised agents only.

Chhattisgarh: Known as "the rice bowl of India", Chhattisgarh is one of the largest producers of rice in India – around 1.6 tonnes per hectare.

Assam: Separatist rebels and ethnic tension make this an unstable region, with attacks on migrants and 605 bomb blasts in the past eight years.

Madhya Pradesh: Sixty per cent of children aged under five are malnourished, leading to a mortality rate of one in 10 – among the world's worst areas for malnutrition.

Jharkhand: With a rapidly advancing economy, poverty declined by 2 per cent per year between 1994 and 2002.

Goa: Hundreds of thousands of tourists flock here each year attracted by Goa's beaches and world heritage architecture.

Rajasthan: The largest state in India, Rajasthan has an area of 342,269km2, around 100,000km2 more than the UK.

Andhra Pradesh: At 972km, Andhra Pradesh has the second largest coastline in India.

Meghalaya: The population is mostly composed of tribespeople, 70 per cent of them Christian owing to the work of early missionaries.

Tripura: A state ruled by members of the Left Front, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Revolutionary Socialist Party.

Uttarakhand: The capital, Dehradun, is sometimes known as "the Oxford of India" for its wide array of boarding schools.

Union territories

Chandigarh: The city of Chandigarh has the highest per capita income in the country at 99,262 rupees (£1,350). It is also a union territory.

Andaman and Nicobar Islands: The islands were struck by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami; 2,500 people were killed and 5,000 pronounced missing.

Lakshadweep: India's smallest union territory with a population of just 60,650.

Delhi: Current estimates put the municipal population at 17 million, making Delhi the sixth most populous city in the world.

Puducherry: With colleges for engineering, the arts, sciences, medicine and technology, Puducherry is considered an educational centre for southern India.

Dadra and Nagar Haveli: These Portuguese colonies were liberated in July 1954, and an agreement signed in 1961 to merge them with the rest of India.

Daman and Diu: With a population of just 158,204 , this is India's second least populous area.

General election facts

There are 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the directly elected lower house which is also known as the House of the People. Elections take place every five years.

There are 730 million registered voters in India, an increase of 40 million since 2004.

Voting will be conducted at 800,000 polling booths and 1,368,430 electronic voting machines.

More than two million security personnel will be on hand to ensure the elections run without a hitch.

Of the candidates announced so far, at least 70 have criminal cases pending against them. The charges include murder, rape, kidnapping, extortion and assault.

Voting takes place over five phases between 16 April and 13 May.

India's biggest political party, the Indian National Congress, is part of the United Progressive Alliance which brings together parties willing to support a Congress-led national government.

The main opposition, the Bharatiya Jarata Party (BJP), is part of the National Democratic Alliance. This coalition was the first to be forged between a major national party and a range of regional players.

The Third Front, a leftist grouping, re-named itself the United National Progressive Alliance last month. The UNPA lists the Communist Party of India, the Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party among its 10 members.

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