NEW DELHI: India, the world’s largest democracy, will go to the polls from April 7 to elect a new parliament with voting taking place in nine phases until May 12.
Here are some questions and answers on the process:
Q: Why is the polling happening in nine phases?
For a country almost continental in size and with 1.2 billion people, the security forces are simply unable to secure the 930,000 polling stations on a single day.
The local weather, festivals, harvesting period and school schedules are also taken into account to ensure each state goes to the polls at the most convenient date.
This year’s elections will take place over a 72-day period starting from Wednesday’s announcement of the dates, four days less than last time around in 2009.
Q. How does the voting take place?
India uses electronic voting machines which cut down the time taken in casting a vote and also enable the counting of ballots to take place on the same day, announced as May 16. Results are due to be announced that day.
For the first time in India’s history, the Election Commission has introduced machines with a voter-verified paper audit trail — a mechanism that seeks to make the process foolproof.
Also for the first time, a None of the Above button will be included on the machines for voters who do not want to cast their ballot for any of the candidates.
Q: What changes from today?
As soon as the Election Commission announced the dates, a “model code of conduct” for politicians and the government entered into force, which seeks to ensure free and fair campaigning.
It binds all parties to a set of rules, for example preventing the government from spending state funds on advertising the ruling party, or banning the distribution of liquor on polling days or 48 hours preceding it.
It also asks that each candidate respect the “home-life” of rivals and keep campaigning “peaceful and undisturbed.”
Q: Who are the likely winners?
Opinion polls have repeatedly indicated that the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will trounce the ruling Congress party, which some suggest is heading for its worst-ever result.
Sixty-three percent of voters surveyed by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center last month said they wanted the BJP to lead the next government against 19 percent who opted for outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress.
A note of caution, however: Indian polls are famously unreliable due to the difficulties of gauging opinions in the vast and poverty-racked country.
They almost universally failed to predict Congress’s victory in the 2004 elections.
Whoever emerges as the biggest party will almost certainly have to form a coalition with smaller regional parties.