At least once every five years, India's Election Commission supervises one of the largest, most complex exercises of collective action in the world. The Election Commission is the independent government body that supervises parliamentary and state elections, which are massive and sometimes marred by violence. Elections for state assemblies and the Lok Sabha are held every five years unless called earlier, such as through a no-confidence vote of the government by the Lok Sabha. Indeed, elections are often held before the five-year limits because governments have often had difficulty staying in power for the full five-year term. [Source: Library of Congress, 2005]

The legal voting age is 18. National and state legislative elections are similar to the British House of Commons and United States House of Representatives, in which members gain office by winning a plurality of votes in their local constituency. The number of constituencies for state legislatures ranges from 32 to 403, with a total of 4,120 state constituencies nationwide. Elections at the state level are no longer wtimed to coincide with national elections, and their schedule has become erratic, as state governments have been more or less stable.

The polls generally open around 7:00am. Voter turnout is usually between 50 and 60 percent. There are almost 1 billion eligible voters in India. Of these about 500 million to 600 million actually vote. Pre-election and exit polling is notoriously inaccurate. Both polls were off in state elections in 2003 and general elections in 2004. Elections come in quick succession. Often not long after a national election there us are important state elections. High temperatures and monsoon rains can affect the turn out.

Indian elections reveal much about Indian society. Candidates span a wide spectrum of backgrounds, including former royalty, cinema superstars, religious holy men, war heroes, and a growing number of farmers. Voters are often apathetic which some have argued shows the maturity of the political system.[Source: Library of Congress]

General Elections in India

General (parliamentary) elections in India are the world’s largest exercise in democracy. Elections are held within five years of the previous one. There was one in April and May 2019. This meant the next one had to be called before April and May 2024. The Prime Minister can dissolve parliament when he choose but the fiercely independent election commission picks the date for the elections within six months after the Prime Minister dissolves parliament. By contrast the Prime Minister in Britain can choose the dates.

There are 543 parliamentary constituencies. Parliamentary election require about a month for all the balloting to be completed. Counting begins a few days after the election is finished. Often the country’s two largest parties don’t secure a majority of seats and need smaller parties to form a government. The election in 2009 utilized 1.3 million voting machines at 828,804 polling station for an expected 714 million voters.

Elections for the House of the People were last held April-May 2019 in seven phases. The next ones will be held in 2024. Elections for the Council of States were last held by state and territorial assemblies at various dates in 2019. They were in progress March through July 2022 to fill 70 expiry seats.

The House of the People (Lok Sabha, lower house) has 545 seats — 543 members directly elected in single-seat constituencies by simple majority vote and 2 appointed by the president; members. Representatives of the lower house serve a maximum of five years; most serve shorter terms. The Rajya Sabha (upper house) has limited power and is comprised of 245 seats — 233 members indirectly elected by state and territorial assemblies by proportional representation vote and 12 members appointed by the president; members serve six-year terms, with one-third up for election every two years. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2023]

The general election in 2014 was held over thirty-five days and nine phases between April 7 and May 12. A total of 8, 251 candidates ran for office. Voter turnout was relatively high, involving 66.38 percent of the country’s approximately 814.5 million eligible voters. The general election after that was in 2019. || [Source: Library of Congress Law Library, Legal Legal Reports, 2017 ||]

Between 1952 and 2019, there were 17 general elections. In the 2004 general elections, there were more than 687,000 polling stations and 671.5 million voters. The voter turnout ranged ing from 55 to 64 percent of eligible voters. India's elections in the 1990s involved overseeing an electorate of about 521 million voters who travel to nearly 600,000 polling stations to chose from some 8,950 candidates representing roughly 162 parties.

Results for the 2019 Parliamentary Elections

Elections for the House of the People were last held April-May 2019 in seven phases. The next ones will be held in 2024. Seats by party: BJP: 303; INC: 52; DMK: 24; AITC: 22; YSRCP: 22; SS: 18; JDU: 16; BJD: 12; BSP: 10; TRS: 9; LJP: 6; NCP: 5; SP: 5; other: 35; independent: 4; vacant: 2; composition - men 465; women 78; percent of women 14.3 percent; note - total Parliament percent of women 11.3 percent.

House of the People (percent of vote by party): BJP: 55.8 percent; INC: 9.6 percent; AITC: 4.4 percent; YSRCP: 4.4 percent; DMK: 4.2 percent; SS 3.3 percent; JDU 2.9 percent; BJD 2.2 percent; BSP 1.8 percent; TRS 1.7 percent; LJP 1.1 percent; NCP 0.9 percent; SP 0.9 percent; other 21.2 percent; independent 0.7 percent.

Elections for the Council of States were last held by state and territorial assemblies at various dates in 2019. They were in progress March through July 2022 to fill 70 expiry seats. Election results: seats by party — BJP: 97; INC: 34; AITC: 13; DMK: 10; other: 2; independent: 2; composition - men 209; women 29; percent of women 13.8 percent..

Elections Requirements According to the Indian Constitution

Elections in India are conducted according to provisions in the Constitution, accompanied by laws made by Parliament. The main laws consist of the Representation of the People Act, 1950, “which mainly deals with the preparation and revision of electoral rolls, ” and the Representation of the People Act, 1951, “which deals, in detail, with all aspects of conduct of elections and post election disputes.” The Supreme Court of India “has held that where the enacted laws are silent or make insufficient provision to deal with a given situation in the conduct of elections, the Election Commission has the residuary powers under the Constitution to act in an appropriate manner.” [Source: Library of Congress Law Library, Legal Legal Reports, 2017 |*|]

In order to become a member the Lok Sabha, a person must run for a seat in the federal elections, which are held “on the basis of universal adult suffrage” and “have to take place every five years, unless called earlier.” This means every citizen of India who is eighteen years of age or older has the right to vote in the elections to the Lok Sabha unless he or she is otherwise disqualified by law. The President may dissolve Lok Sabha and call a general election before five years is up if the government can no longer command the confidence of the Lok Sabha, and if there is no alternative government available to take over. According to the Lok Sabha website,

Parliament, from time to time, by law makes provision with respect to all matters relating to, or in connection with, elections to the Lok Sabha, including the preparation of electoral rolls, the delimitation of constituencies and all other matters necessary for securing the due constitution of the Lok Sabha. When the seat of a Member elected to the House becomes vacant or is declared vacant, or his/her election is declared void, the same is filled through bye-election. |*|

Article 84 of India’s Constitution stipulates that in order to become a member of the Lok Sabha, a person must be a citizen of India, not less than twenty-five years of age, and possess such other qualifications as may be prescribed by or under any law made by Parliament. |*|

Elections to the Lok Sabha are carried out using a first-past-the-post electoral system. The country is split up into separate geographical areas, known as constituencies, and the electors can cast one vote each for a candidate (although most candidates stand as independents, most successful candidates stand as members of political parties), the winner being the candidate who gets the highest number of votes. |*|

The country is divided into 543 parliamentary constituencies, each of which returns one Member of Parliament to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament. The size and shape of the parliamentary constituencies “are determined by an independent Delimitation Commission, which aims to create constituencies which have roughly the same population, subject to geographical considerations and the boundaries of the states and administrative areas.”

Shyam Saran Negi — 'India's First Voter' Lives Until 105

Shyam Saran Negi is thought to have been the first voter in India's 1952 general election — India’s first after gaining independence from British rule — and was thus dubbed "India's first voter". He voted in every election after that a died in 2022 at the age of 105. The BBC reported: The centenarian had cast his ballot just three days ago before his death on Saturday, in the assembly elections for his state of Himachal Pradesh. [Source: Alex Binley, BBC, November 5, 2022 at 11:46 PM

“The retired teacher is thought to be the first person to vote in an independent India because his state opened polling booths five months early in 1951 for the 1952 election to avoid heavy snow. A few days before he died officials from the Electoral Commission laid out a red carpet for Mr Negi when he cast his postal ballot ahead of the 12 November election. Indian media reported it was the first time Mr Negi had not attended a polling booth, opting to post his ballot instead due to ill-health.

In 2014, Mr Negi was made a brand ambassador for the Electoral Commission in a bid to encourage voting and starred in a Google video encouraging people to vote in the year's general election. As he posted his papers, India's The Tribute newspaper reported that Mr Negi made a statement urging young people to vote. "Youth should come forward to participate in the democratic process as it is not only our right but also our duty to participate in the elections by exercising our franchise," he was quoted as saying. Speaking at an election rally, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid tribute to Mr Negi. The government has said he will be cremated with full state honours at his village in Kalpa.

Political Campaigns in India

Campaigns rallies in India are often like big parties with music and appearances by celebrities. The candidates often appear with Bollywood actors and give out free food and prizes. Sometimes tends of thousands, or even hundred of thousands of people show up at the rallies. In April 2004, 21 people were killed at a politician’s birthday party when a crowded stampeded to get their hands on free saris that were promised. The dead were women and children who suffocated as they were trampled when the crowd surged to get saris.

Describing a campaign stop by a film actor turned politician, the Financial Times reported:, “Raj Babbar walks on to a makeshift stage in Bilara, a dust-blown farming village...telling several hundred villagers that a vote for him is a vote for economic development...The people shout slogans of support and credit Babbar for a newly paved road and reliable power supply.”

Campaigns often feature personal attacks against political rivals. Rallies with Hindu characteristics feature flower petals strewn on the streets and people with garlands around their neck touching their foreheads to touch the hands of beloved candidates, or kneeling and kissing their feet. Street performers are used to push development themes like “electricity, power, water, plus health.” Headmen in villages are required to bring trolley-trailers full of supporters to political rallies. Without this set up few people would show at the rallies.

Campaigns utilize communications technologies ranging from the latest video vans with two-way screens to the traditional rumor traveling by word of mouth. Television plays a big part in elections, both in term of spreading political messages to a large national audience, particularly the illiterate masses that can not read newspapers, but also in helping politicians, particularly actors and charismatic leaders, that come across well on the screen. Increasingly parties are mounting Western style campaigns. In 2004, BJP ran a multimillion dollar “India Shining” campaign.”

Campaign Reforms in India

Campaign reforms in India have included new laws that limited the amount of money a candidate could spend during an election to $15,000. A rule that prohibited candidates from raising religion in their campaigns. Was also introduced .

In the election after the campaign reforms were initiated, one businessmen, who owned a Rolls Royce and six helicopters, was forced to get around on foot. An ultra-nationalist Hindu candidate was forced to give up his "chariot of Ram" jeep which symbolized his involvement in the tearing down of the Ayodhya mosque in 1992.

One candidate, a former actor famous for his tough guy roles, collapsed from exhaustion. Another attempted to save money by hiring bird trainers to teach hundreds of parrots to say, "Vote for Laloo"

The reform sharply curtailed the use of campaign posters, sound trucks with blaring speakers, free rail tickets and booze, and other mainstays of Indian elections. The campaigns were monitored by 5,000 election officials, armed with video cameras and the power to prosecute violators on the spot.

State Elections in India’

In February and March 2022, state elections were held in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, and four other states. 1) Uttar Pradesh’s elections were held: in seven phases beginning on February 10 and ending on March 7 The others were in 2) Goa on February 14, 3) Uttarakhand on February 14; 4) Punjab on February 20; and Manipur: February 27 and March 3. Counting in all five states began on March 10, with the results expected soon after. [Source: Alasdair Pal, Reuters, February 10, 2022]

One why the elections in 2022 were important, Alasdair Pal of Reuters wrote; They provide what observers are calling a "semi-final" contest ahead of nationwide parliamentary polls due by 2024. Given the complexity and size of the voting, opinion polls in India can be unreliable. Few parties are able to govern the country without enjoying popular support in Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state that sends by far the most legislators to parliament. A good showing there would give the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a major boost to its hopes for a third consecutive term in power.

“What are the main issues? “The BJP has made religious issues key in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, two north Indian states with a large Hindu majority. Punjab faces India's worst drug problem, Goa is split over whether to allow mining in the state, while in the remote northeastern state of Manipur some parties have pledged to repeal special laws that allow the military to act with virtual impunity. Some issues cut across all five states. The BJP says it has prioritised development for the country's poorest and cleaned up India's reputation for inefficiency and corruption after decades of mismanagement. Opposition parties point to a stuttering economy and lack of job creation, particularly among the country's youth.

“What are the parties hoping to achieve? The BJP will be looking to retain the four states it already controls. Defeat in any of these – especially Uttar Pradesh – would add to pressure brewing over the economy and the government's handling of the pandemic. Failure by opposition Congress party to carry any of the five states will lead to more questions over the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, a scion of the Nehru political dynasty whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather have all served as prime ministers. Victory in Goa or Punjab for the regional Aam Aadmi Party will likely raise the national profile of its leader Arvind Kejriwal, currently head of the Delhi provincial government.

Election Violence in India

Violence is often a characteristic of elections in India. Kidnappings, gun battles, destruction of voting machines and ballot theft have all occurred at election time. Separatist and leftist groups attack polling stations. Some terrorist groups have threatened to chop off fingers of people who had marks on their hands they showed they had voted. In 1991, some 350 people, including former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, four other parliamentary candidates, and twenty-one candidates running in state legislative assembly elections, were killed in election-related violence.

Security is often very high during elections. Police and soldiers are stationed at the voting stations. In the 2004 general election more than 400,000 police and soldiers were deployed to prevent violence. In some places thousands of paramilitary troops are brought to sop violence between the private armies of rival candidates and confiscate rifles, pistols and material used to make bombs. In Uttar Pradesh, where more than 100 persons were killed in the 1991 elections, the Election Commission succeeded in reducing the number killed to two in the November 1993 assembly elections by enforcing compulsory deposit of all licensed firearms, banning unauthorized vehicular traffic, and supplementing local police with paramilitary units.

More than 150 people died in the 1998 election. Around 60 were killed and 200 were injured by 17 bombs that went of in southern city of Coimbatore, shortly after a BJP rally. Members of the BJP blamed Muslim groups. Critics of the BJP, say the bombs may have been set off by groups supporting of the BJP to win sympathy for the party. There were also bomb explosions in Bombay. There was also widespread violence in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Assam.

Around 350 were killed in election violence in 1999. On one day alone, 31 people were killed by guerilla-planted mines. In Maharashtra, a candidate with royal blood hacked an opponent to death with a sword. In Assam, separatists shot and killed a BJP candidate who offered to negotiate with the rebels and dumped his body in a rice paddy. In Bihar, Maoists insurgent chopped the hand off a village elder who had been accused of betraying the insurgents. In Kashmir, a BJP candidate was assassinated and a National Congress candidate was attacked twice by gunmen. Others candidates survived rifle shots and land mines. Four people were killed in Andra Pradesh in fights between members or rival parties. [Source: Washington Post]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Encyclopedia.com, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wall Street Journal, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated December 2023

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