Elections in India don’t happen in a day. They are rather a month-long affair. The world’s largest democracy, with a 900 million electorate (more than the entire population of Europe) is in the process of electing the 543 members of the 17th Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament), in an election which began on 11th April and is due to end on 19th May. But the statement made by those 900 million is often as obscure as it is loud.
It is just not the population, but also the multitude of communities, cultures and languages which make India appear more like a continent than a country. This is what makes deciphering Indian elections difficult not just for the novice but for experienced psephologists. To add to the problem, 84 million of these registered electors are first-time voters, who have just reached the minimum voting age of 18 and thus have no voting history from which to gauge their likely intentions, if one is even necessary.
It is helpful to try to understand the way elections work in India, and how the leader of the world’s largest democracy gets elected, because the process demonstrates both the triumphs and disasters of democracy. The fact that such vast elections are held at all, and the system is maintained by the people, is undoubtedly a triumph. But at the same time, how can anyone get what they want, or hope the system might deliver it one day in the future?
In or out of your house
General elections in India choose members of both the lower house (Lok Sabha) and upper house (Rajya Sabha) of the bicameral parliament. Lok Sabha members are directly elected, but Rajya Sabha members by an indirect method. The representatives of each State and the two Union territories are elected by the members of the Legislative Assemblies of those States and the members of the Electoral Colleges of those Union Territories. 12 further members are nominated by the President.
This hybrid system is supposed to produce “checks and balances”, in the classic British parliamentary tradition. No one interest should be able to ride roughshod over all others. But can you imagine any one interest group, political, financial, ethnic or religious, trying to make the rest of the country jump to its tune?