India's Election: Six Weeks Long, 814 Million Potential Voters

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S.Y. Quraishi, the former chief election commissioner, sums up voting in India this way: "The Indian election is not only the biggest election of the world — probably this is the biggest human event of the world."

Indians streamed to the polls Monday in the first stage of a nearly six-week-long national election, and the outcome is very much in doubt. The sheer size sets the election apart: A record 814 million people — more than the electorates of the United States and Europe combined — are eligible to cast ballots.

Nearly 1 million polling stations will be set up — all with electronic voting machines. Eleven million poll officials and security force members will be deployed. For the first time voters will have the option to cast their ballot for "none of the above."

Apart from the magnitude, the election also poses stark differences for the direction and identity of India.

After 10 years in power, Sonia Gandhi's Indian National Congress Party, with its legacy of social welfare programs for the poor and megacorruption scandals, is struggling to connect with voters.

The main opposition, the nationalist BJP, with its popular but controversial chief, Narendra Modi, is stirring the electorate with the promise of change.

Modi choose the ancient city of Varanasi to make this stand for a seat in Parliament that could propel him to the prime minister's chair. Nowhere is Hinduism more on the display than in the 3,000-year-old city whose iconic stone steps spill into the western bank of the Ganges River.

Modi's decision puts India's center for religion and spirituality smack in the center of the national campaign.

Modi has sidestepped overt mention of religion, largely galvanizing Indians with a call for an economic revival along the lines of that of the western Indian state of Gujarat, where he is chief minister.

India eyes China's economy with envy while its own growth has slipped below 5 percent. Actor Tilak Raj Mishra, 30, says the young are especially keen to see Modi take power.

"First of all, Narendra Modi is a great personality. He has got a vision: an idea, a vision for development for the progress of this country," Mishra says. "We the people of India only want to see development, nothing but development."

Critics argue that Modi's development model has enriched the business class but has not uplifted Gujarat's poor.

Uneven Growth

The heir to the Gandhi political dynasty, Rahul Gandhi, who is leading his Congress Party's campaign, slammed the Gujarat model of development at a recent rally on Modi's home turf.

"Children are dying — but they say Gujarat is shining. Shining — but for whom?" said Gandhi, who is Sonia Gandhi's son. "Not for children. Not for unemployed youth. Not for women."

Then he added, "It is definitely shining ... for 10 to 15 industrialists."

Members of Varanasi's Muslim's community say religious disturbances are so easily ignited in India that someone as divisive as Modi at the helm would make discord more likely.

Modi, 63, is a self-declared Hindu nationalist. Under his watch in 2002, Hindu-Muslim riots erupted in Gujarat and killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. Modi has never apologized and the violence marked him as a polarizing figure.

"We feel that we'll be suppressed. Suppression economically, educationally, as the Gujarat Muslims feel," says M.Z. Haque, who leads a Muslim academy for young boys and girls in Gujarat.

But Modi is not without his Muslim backers. Kalime Ashraf, a Muslim who toils as a weaver, says a lack of modern machinery is hurting Varanasi's once prosperous sari export business. He expects Modi to modernize the industry and says like-minded Muslims have no problem voting for Modi.

"I support Modi because of development," Ashraf says. "His model is successful. He's a good man. It's a good party. And I'm tired of the politics of division."

History Of Religious Divisions

Independent India was forged in religious division. The partition in 1947 that cleaved Muslim Pakistan out of predominantly Hindu India displaced millions and left hundreds of thousands dead. Spasms of religious violence still arise each year.

On the outskirts of Delhi last week, Modi held several thousand supporters in thrall.

"Modi, Modi, Modi!" they wildly chanted while he picked apart his opponents.

The subject: secularism. Modi mocked Sonia Gandhi and her Congress Party's bid to unify Muslims on behalf of her party. Gandhi appealed last week to the imam of Delhi's main mosque not to split the Muslim vote — for the sake of "secularism." But Modi accused Gandhi of exploiting religious differences to achieve a political end.

"The Congress Party realizes that no one in this country is going to buy their shallow slogan of secularism," roared Modi. "That's why on the verge of defeat the Congress Party is now looking for votes along communal lines."

Congress has attempted to paint Modi as a divider who is willing to stoke religious acrimony. But for many voters the economy is paramount and corruption scams worth billions have tainted Gandhi's party.

Pollsters see a "Modi-wave" washing over India and a crashing defeat coming for Congress, the oldest political party in India.

Consulting The Astrologers

Regardless of party, it would not be an Indian election unless the candidates consulted the stars.

Astrologer Neelam Agrawal reads politicians' charts and advises them on their chances for victory. She warns it is an especially unsettled time.

"Saturn is aligned with [tormentor] Rahu. So that creates a lot of good things for a lot of people but a lot of very, very difficult things for a lot of people. ... Turmoil. And you can see the turmoil."

Musical troupes educate voters, sound trucks spew party songs, and high-voltage television who's-up-who's-down debates give the campaign a slight American cast.

But India's election is like nothing else nowhere else. Former Chief Election Commissioner Quraishi authored An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election and he says no effort is spared to reach the hundreds of millions with ballots, even it it takes elephants, camels, boats, planes or trains.

"You name it, and that is the transport we're using. And there are some places where none of these transports will go, then polling teams have to walk."

He says not even the lone priest living in a lion-infested forest will be left without a voting booth. Pity the poor poll watcher.

The counting takes places on May 16.

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