Indian Muslim women hold their ID cards and wait to vote today (picture: AFP Photo/Strdel)
India began a staggered nine-phased national election today, starting the process to elect 543 members to its Lok Sabha, or lower house of the country's parliament.
In what is billed as world's largest democratic exercise, over 814.5 million people are eligible to cast their votes through 930,000 polling stations—mostly schools—set up across the country. The elections are scheduled to end on May 12.
The 2014 general elections are dubbed the most interesting in India’s history, with media reports predicting that the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government (UPA) will be overthrown by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP- Indian People’s Party.)
A series of graft scandals, inflation and an increase in violence against women across the country may work against the UPA, which headed the government for the past 10 years.
The year 2013 saw a staggering rise in the prices of essential food items with food inflation rising to 13.68 per cent, tearing quite a hole in the poor man’s pocket.
According to data released by India’s planning commission, 22 percent of India’s over 1.2 billion population lives below the poverty line and has been the worst affected by the rising prices of essential commodities in India. Despite the introduction of a government bill to ensure food security for poor people, prices of essential commodities kept spiraling.
Another issue that is haunting the current government is security for women. The 2012 gang rape of a medical student in New Delhi shook the nation, leading to widespread protests across the country demanding stringent laws against the crime.
Though a tougher rape law was introduced, it has been unsuccessful in reducing the incidents of rape. In 2013, over 1,100 cases were registered in the country. Police and activists agree that cases often go unreported.
Adding to the incumbent’s problems, the BJP is campaigning to offer real change, which might appeal to millions. Despite the ‘fanatic Hindu’ tag attached to it, the party has successfully created a positive mood of approval, according to most media reports.
BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has done enough to address the fears of minority communities - Muslims and Christians - by talking to their leaders. Most importantly, during his addresses he has frequently spoken of a united India and has been careful not to offend religious and linguistic minorities.
If the opinion polls conducted by different independent agencies are to be believed, the BJP is set to win over 200 seats and form a new government with a coalition of allies.
But both Congress and the BJP are looking over their shoulders at the one-year-old Aam Aadmi Party - Common People’s Party - which is set to take a good bite out of the votes. However, while it may take some seats on its planks of anti-corruption and a cleaner India, it surely will not win enough to even be a major ally of one of the big two.
But the main question is: how is this 35,000 million rupee (US$580 million) extravaganza going to help the country? What difference will it make to a domestic worker, or a tea vendor or vegetable seller on the street if a new government takes power?
Almost nothing, every Indian will agree. Democratically elected governments have come and gone since Indian gained political independence from the British in 1947. The country has not dramatically improved its poverty, illiteracy or health indices over the years, despite the expectations and promises of government leaders. The poor remain poor, if not poorer.
The new government faces the daunting task of fixing the ills of the economy and delivering to its promises to the common man, who desperately needs a change for better.