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Voting in world’s largest poll battle begins April 11, counting on May 23

Chief election commissioner Sunil Arora announced the nearly six-week-long exercise will be manned by at least 11 million election personnel.

lok-sabha-elections Updated: Mar 11, 2019 00:14 IST
Saubhadra Chatterji and Dhrubo Jyoti
Saubhadra Chatterji and Dhrubo Jyoti
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Election Commissioner of India Sunil Arora announced that the upcoming national election will be held in seven phases in April and May.
Election Commissioner of India Sunil Arora announced that the upcoming national election will be held in seven phases in April and May.(AP Photo)
         

More than 900 million people will vote at one million polling booths spread across 29 states and seven union territories to elect 543 lawmakers to the Lok Sabha, the Election Commission announced on Sunday, kicking off the world’s largest democratic exercise that will be staggered in seven phases stretching from April 11 to May 19.

Chief election commissioner Sunil Arora announced the nearly six-week-long exercise will be manned by at least 11 million election personnel. He said that the counting of votes will take place on May 23 — 11 days before the term of the 16th Lok Sabha ends on June 3.

“The festival of democracy, elections are here,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted. “I urge my fellow Indians to enrich the 2019 Lok Sabha elections with their active participation. I hope this election witnesses a historic turnout. I particularly call upon first time voters to vote in record numbers.”

The number of eligible voters is almost four times the number of voters in the next largest democracy, the United States, and is also more than the entire population of Europe. About 84.3 million people — more than the entire population of Germany — have joined the electoral rolls since the 2014 general election, and 15 million are between the ages of 18 and 19, the election commission announced.

“The Election Commission has attempted a very comprehensive preparation for the conduct of the election,” Arora said. “The panel believes that purity of electoral roll is the foundation of fair elections.”

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He also announced that the model code of conduct – which bars governments from announcing major policy decisions or projects – came into effect from Sunday.

The polls will take place in seven phases — on April 11, 18, 23, 29, May 6, 12 and 19 – a testament to the daunting logistical and security challenges in overseeing an electorate stretching from the Himalayas in the north to deserts in the west, insurgent-infested tropical jungles in the centre and the coastal plains in the south. Along with the elections to the Lok Sabha, assembly elections will be held in four states – Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

Elections in the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir, which is currently under President’s Rule and on the boil following heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, will be announced at a later date, Arora said. By-elections to 74 assembly constituencies across India will also be held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha polls.

Twenty-two states and UTs will go to the polls in a single phase and three of the biggest states — Bihar (40 seats), West Bengal (42 seats) and Uttar Pradesh (80 seats) — will be voting across seven phases. Delhi will vote in the penultimate phase on May 12.

The EC announced a raft of new measures, such as Voter Verified Paper Audit Trails in all voting machines to end any doubts about the veracity of vote cast and photographs of the candidates in the electronic voting machines (EVM) in an apparent attempt to end confusion between nominees with similar names. Contestants with criminal antecedents would be required to “publish information” in newspapers and through television channels and the EC announced a new app for voters to report violations of the model code. “Any violation will be dealt in the strictest manner,” he said.

Read more| When 3 top EC officials carpooled to Vigyan Bhavan to blow the poll bugle

The model code of conduct was extended to social media this time, with the poll panel saying all political advertisements would have to be vetted by a media commission set up by the EC, and all social media expenditure accounted for.

Elections in independent India were first held in 1951 but the months-long effort spilled over into 1952 as the Election Commission struggled to reach remote areas in a country where the vast majority of the electorate was illiterate at the time.

To facilitate universal adult franchise as mandated in the Constitution, the EC devised the idea of prominently using election symbols for parties and used elephants to transport ballot boxes in rugged terrain. Since then, the independent poll panel has become a model for major democracies, extending its expertise to help conduct polls in countries such as Cameroon, Afghanistan and the Philippines. EVMs were first used in India in the general elections held in 2004.

Lok Sabha elections in India are a mind-boggling affair where leaders wrestle to weave narratives that bridge deep and complex divisions of caste, class, religion and region. In the last general election in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rode on a wave of prime ministerial candidate Modi’s pan-Indian popularity to a once-in-a-generation majority. The party won 282 seats, and along with its allies comprising the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) captured 334 seats in the 545-member Lower House. The Congress, saddled by the weight of corruption scandals, was reduced to its lowest tally of 44 seats since Independence.

Read more| 10 ex-BSP leaders join Congress in MP hours before LS polls announcement

But a lot has changed in the past five years.

A resurgent Congress, buoyed by victories in three key heartland states in December, is attempting to corner the BJP on issues of corruption, agrarian distress and jobs. A number of other key regional players — such as Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party, who have stitched an alliance in politically crucial Uttar Pradesh — are also trying to challenge the dominance of the BJP.

The saffron party, under its chief Amit Shah, continues to take pole position in almost every opinion poll, and is banking on nationalism, PM Modi’s personal charisma, and its governance record to carry it to a second term in power.

Modi welcomed the efforts of the EC, and said the country was proud of the poll panel, and hit out at his opponents. “Guided by ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’, NDA seeks your blessings again. We spent the last five years fulfilling basic necessities that were left unfulfilled for 70 long years. Now, time has come to build on that and create a strong, prosperous & secure India,” he tweeted.

The Congress, however, hit out at the government, saying it will be best remembered for “wasting” its historic mandate and that all its promises remained “unfulfilled”. Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati termed the government as “anti-poor and pro-capitalist”.

Read more| Model code of conduct now in force: What it means

First Published: Mar 11, 2019 00:14 IST