Watching the “World’s Biggest Election”

We have had the pleasure of being able to watch what has been dubbed “the world’s biggest election” that tells you so much about this country. CNN has a good prospective write up from a Western perspective and Foreign Policy Magazine’s South Asia Channel has had good ongoing coverage, as has the Financial Times’ Beyond BRICS blog. Google has a great video that urges people to vote and gives you a little sense of the pride that the country has in its election by profiling the first voter post-Independence.

BuzzFeed also has some fantastic images of the election that might give you a little sense of the scale and scope of this exercise.

A number of people have asked me what I thought of the election. So I put together some basic observations.

First it is huge: 814 million registered voters, roughly four times the number of registered voters in the US. The 2012 US presidential election had about 58% turnout, for a total of about 126 million voters. Here, turnout is looking to be about 70%, for a total of about 560 million voters. Stated differently, almost 1 in 10 people in the world will have voted in this election, an election without absentee ballots and with some real registration challenges.

Second, it is logistically complicated. Voting takes place on seven different days between April 7 and May 12, with results announced on May 16. The reason given for elections happening on multiple days is that security is a challenge in a number of states where there are violent terrorist groups. Wikipedia has a lot of good details.

Third, it is politically complicated. In a place where local language and ethnicity can create a more powerful pull than a leader of a national party who doesn’t share language, ethnicity, etc. with local voters, local parties often dominate. There are only two parties with a national scope, BJP and Congress, with a third, the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man Party), having pretensions to shape the national debate, especially around corruption, its core issue.  And even then, they only lead coalitions of parties, with the main parties themselves fielding candidates in half the seats.

Fourth, “community” matters. Candidates are expected to “deliver” for their community and, after that, their coalitions. And here, community can mean geographical, linguistic, religious, caste, etc. These communities become “vote banks.” This creates a counter-intuitive dynamic in which, interest groups bring their issues to the foreground and exert power over their community leaders and elected officials by boycotting elections rather than voting, thereby diluting the power of their own vote banks and shaming their leaders into helping them.

Fifth, caste is hugely important for politics, way more than I realized. On the one hand, I was naive, but so to are many urban-dwellers when they look out and see how politics is actually organized. It goes to the definition of community, above. Story after story discusses the nuance of caste in organizing campaigns. And there is anecdotal evidence that the Congress Party, the founding party of the country, for all of its failings, is much more expert at politicking around caste than anyone else, which could provide a buffer for them in a number of key constituencies.

Sixth, the middle class vote has not historically mattered. In the US and Europe, we tend to focus the rhetorical force of our campaigns on the middle class. Not here, for a number of reasons. Richa Singh, the Director of the Centre for Democracy and Social Action noted that the middle class  “had for long been spectators in electoral politics.” She estimates that the middle class ranges from 10-30% of the population, depending on the ideological framing you bring to your enumeration.  According to a 2007 McKinsey report, arguing that the rise of the consumer class creates massive economic opportunities, identified the size of the middle class at 50 million in 2007, but rising quickly. Furthermore, the middle class tends to live in cities which are harder to organize on the “community” lines described above. And people in cities are often from other places, to which they are legally attached and in which they are therefore obligated to vote.  To vote, they have to return home, and they often don’t. Due to all of these reasons, cities tend to have turnout that is 10-15% less than the rural areas around them. With only 30% of the population in the cities anyways, guess where the politicians spend their time and the government’s money.

Seventh, this time, it may be different. That same McKinsey study estimates that by 2016, the middle class could be as large as 267 million.  Singh locates the rise of the anti-corruption AAP as one attempt to capture a politics around this growth spurt, while the BJP has historically captured much of this vote. As political advisor turned diplomat turned author Pawan Varma said, “The 2014 elections mark a watershed in the evolution of this class in India. What it does and the choices it makes will shape the future of India, for better or for worse. ” In addition, social media and technology, only accessible to those with  smart phones and internet access, may well matter for the first time.

Eighth, the amount of money is mind boggling — and this is an American saying that. The most credible estimate is that $5 billion (30,000 crores where a crore = 10,000,000 INR) will be spent. That is about $10 or 600 INR per vote. While the US number is $56/vote, 5.6 times, India’s per-capita GDP is 1/30th the US’s or 1/13th on a PPP basis. Politics is much more money intensive here than in the US.

Ninth, that money doesn’t exactly move around in an above board manner. Sometimes it gets to voters in Tiffin boxes. The Economist reviewed the methods used and points to business challenges that real estate developers and cement companies run into close to elections.  Anecdotally, I have heard that a maid might be given 5,000 INR by one party to round up some votes. That could be more than a month’s salary for that person.

Tenth, the Election Commission coordinates and runs the elections. It also has powers to seize assets that are likely to be used for corruption and to challenge the actions taken by politicians during the campaign itself, rather than waiting until after the election happens and the action of the regulator is moot. That said, few people believe that they catch anything close to what actually takes place.

But finally — and this is the real point — everyone takes the election incredibly seriously. Indeed, as historian Ramachandra Guha argued in India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, democracy is in fact the central facet of India’s secular identity post Independence.  In a country with mind-boggling inequality, elections are a place where fundamental equalities can be expressed. In a country in which not everything works all the time, it is truly remarkable that the elections do actually work with a level of efficiency that we really don’t see in the US. The Wall Street Journal has a remarkable piece, accompanied by the video below, about the challenges that were overcome to ensure that a remote village of 261 people could vote, with 80% turnout.


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