New Delhi: India’s Election Commission, or EC, announced elections in five phases, beginning 16 April, in the shadow of a crisis that has slowed the country’s economy and resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.
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The month-long process, which includes elections to the three state assemblies of Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim and Orissa, will culminate with the counting of votes on 16 May and the new Lok Sabha being constituted before 2 June.
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The incoming government will have to come up with a strategy to revive the economy, correct the acute imbalance in the state’s finances, and address growing security concerns.
The EC’s announcement is expected to expedite the cementing of political alliances as parties gear up to target the 714 million electorate, much of whom will be made up of young voters, with several of them voting for the first time. Demographically, 70% of India’s estimated 1.3 billion population is less than 35 years of age.
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Given the growing political clout of regional parties as well as the lack of a single national issue, analysts say that most of the contests could be either triangular, or even four-cornered. Besides the two main coalitions, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, the Communist parties are seeking to put together a third political alternative.
There is no clear trend to be seen in recent results, with the UPA suffering reverses in 14 of the 27 state elections held since 2004. However, in the state elections held in December, the Congress retained power in Delhi for a record third term, and wrested Rajasthan from the BJP.
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Of the 543 parliamentary constituencies, 124 will go to the polls on 16 April, 141 on 23 April, 107 on 30 April, 85 on 7 May and 86 on 13 May.
Chief election commissioner N. Gopalaswami, whose term expires on 20 April, said that while six constituencies in Jammu and Kashmir and 80 in Uttar Pradesh will vote in five phases, 40 constituencies in Bihar will go to polls in four phases. He added that Maharashtra (48 constituencies) and West Bengal (42) will have a three-phased poll and Andhra Pradesh (42), Assam (14), Jharkhand (14), Karnataka (28), Punjab (13), Madhya Pradesh (29), Manipur (2) and Orissa (21), will have two-phase elections. The remaining 15 states and seven union territories will have a single phase election.
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A survey done by Invest India Market Solutions, the consulting arm of Invest India Economic Foundation, an economic think tank, estimated in a 2008 study that 40% of India’s population, or 308 million, was in the 18-30 years age group. Its calculations showed that 35 million teenagers turned 18 in 2008.
The total electorate in the country, according to EC, has gone up from 671 million in 2004 to 714 million. Elections to 499 constituencies will be held on the basis of the newly delimited constituencies that have been redefined on the basis of population density.
According to EC, the poll dates were finalized after taking into account schedules for school examinations, holidays and festivals, the harvest season in certain parts of the country, and inputs from the India Meteorological Department for an update on the arrival of the south-west monsoon.
“The battle lines are drawn and the alignments are clear in almost all the states except in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. Other than states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab, it looks like triangular fights, but in Andhra Pradesh it could be (a) four-cornered contest,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, political analyst and chairperson of the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies.
Psephologist and political analyst G.V.L Narasimha Rao said he expects to see some political realignment soon. “This is an election in which every single party—small or big—has some stake, sothey all have hopes that they will do better. It will lead to big bargaining.”
Rao, who pointed out that the inflation and the anti-incumbency factor could affect the chances of the UPA, said the announcement of dates would accelerate this process. “So far, it has not appeared that the election issues have been settled. But now that things have been put in motion, the real picture will become clearer in (the) next couple of weeks,” added Rao, who is media adviser to the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh.
Bidyut Chakrabarty, professor at the department of political science, Delhi university said it would be difficult to pinpoint any one issue as crucial. “I do believe there are pan-India issues, but with different names. There are vertical issues like caste, religion and region, as there are horizontal issues that largely revolve around development.”
He added that the ambitious third alternative still looks uncertain. “One really doesn’t know what’s happening with the third front... Mayawati (Bahujan Samaj Party chief and Uttar Pradesh chief minister) is still uncertain about which way she would go.”
Seven assembly constituencies—one each in Jharkhand, Karnataka and Mizoram, and four in Nagaland—will have by-elections along with the general election.
The Election Commission will be using 1.1 million electronic voting machines and 522 constituencies will have photo electoral rolls.
The commission has set up a polling station in Gujarat’s Junagarh just for one voter, while another polling station in Chhattisgarh will have only two voters. There are also three polling stations in Arunachal Pradesh which will have three voters each.
The controversy over Gopalaswami’s recommendation to President Pratibha Patil for the removal of election commissioner Navin Chawla, who is expected to succeed him, had cast a shadow over the functioning of the independent commission. The President on Sunday rejected Gopalaswami’s recommendation, which had accused Chawla of “partisanship”. S.Y. Quraishi is the third election commissioner.
Video by Nidhi Bhardwaj
Graphics by Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint