India will hold elections over five weeks starting on April 11 involving some 900 million voters in what is the world’s largest democratic exercise that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking another term, called a “festival of democracy”.
Mr Modi, whose humble origin as a tea seller is often highlighted, is pitted against Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who comes from a powerful political dynasty, and a host of other regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress. Opposition parties have been trying to put up a united front against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The Election Commission on Sunday (March 11) announced that polling dates for the 543 parliamentary seats will take place in seven phases starting on April 11, and ending on May 19. Counting for these seven phases will take place on May 23.
“India’s elections are an example for the world, a beacon of democracy,” Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora said when announcing the dates.
He said the complexities of elections had grown with the population over the past couple of decades. Some 900 million people out of a population of 1.3 billion are eligible to vote, 10.6 per cent more than the 814 million in the previous polls in 2014.
Some 15 million voters are aged between 18 and 19.
Mr Modi won a massive majority in 2014 on the promise of creating jobs and fast-paced economic growth.
The BJP then won 282 of the 543 seats in the Lower House of Parliament, winning a majority for the first time in over three decades.
While Mr Modi has implemented big-ticket reforms like the goods and services tax and further liberalised the economy, unemployment remains a serious problem.
Job creation has not kept pace with the millions entering the job market each year.
There is also rural discontent, with farmers labouring under lower prices for their produce and growing debt.
In a signal of the rural unhappiness, the BJP lost elections in three states considered its stronghold in December.
Still, Mr Modi remains a popular leader, with at least one opinion poll giving him the edge.
According to a survey conducted by the Times Group, Mr Modi remains a favourite to return as prime minister. Some 200,000 people were polled between Feb 11 and 20.
While jobs and farmers’ distress are key issues, the recent outbreak of hostilities with Pakistan has made national security an issue in the run-up to the elections, giving the BJP an edge, analysts say.
In a sign of how the air strikes have become political fodder, the Election Commission has issued a notice asking political parties not to use images of the armed forces. This came about after some BJP posters included photographs of Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, who was released by Pakistan at the height of the recent hostilities.
Still, the Congress led by Mr Gandhi has also unrolled an aggressive campaign.
The Congress, which was reduced to just 44 seats in the 2014 elections, is hoping for a revival, and has targeted the government on jobs and the farmers’ crisis, apart from accusing it of corruption in a defence deal related to the purchase of fighter jets from a French company.
Amid the often acerbic election campaign with many personal attacks, Mr Modi on Sunday tweeted his best wishes to all parties: “Wishing all political parties and candidates the very best for the 2019 Lok Sabha (Lower House) elections. We may belong to different parties, but our aim must be the same – the development of India and empowerment of every Indian.”