Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

11 things to know about world's biggest election

By Peter Bergen and Ana Swanson
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1648 GMT (0048 HKT)
An Indian supporter Narendra Modi holds up masks of the prime ministerial candidate at an election rally.
An Indian supporter Narendra Modi holds up masks of the prime ministerial candidate at an election rally.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • World's largest election has begun in India; lower house and next prime minister are at stake
  • India's slowing economy is the key issue, authors say; 1 in 3 of world's poorest are in India
  • BJP candidate Narendra Modi is considered to be the favorite for prime minister, they say
  • Authors: Young voters and women may play a bigger role in this election than in the past

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, and Ana Swanson is an MA candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Both are editors of the South Asia Channel on foreignpolicy.com.

(CNN) -- India's general election, the largest democratic exercise in history, begins Monday. Voters will elect 543 members to the lower house of parliament, which will then select the country's next prime minister. Here are 11 things you need to know about the world's biggest election:

1. Its massive scale. More than 814 million voters are eligible to cast ballots over the next month to elect the lower house of parliament, or Lok Sabha, up from 713 million voters in 2009. The Indian voting pool is larger than the total populations of the United States and Western Europe combined.

Given the infrastructure in India, an election of this scale can't be done in a day. Voting will take place in nine blocks over the next five weeks, to allow election authorities to tackle the daunting logistics of operating 930,000 polling stations. The vote counting will be carried out and concluded on May 16.

2. It's the economy, stupid. India's flagging economic performance is the election's central issue. After registering Chinese-style growth rates of 8% to 10% in the 2000s, India's economy slowed sharply in 2012. GDP growth now remains below 5%, coupled with persistently high inflation.

Indian politicians and academics remain divided over whether the country should focus its energy on first reigniting growth or on alleviating poverty. Even after a decade of rapid growth, India is still home to one in three of the world's poorest people. Unlike other countries, India's poor tend to vote in higher numbers than the rich.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen
Ana Swanson
Ana Swanson

3. The BJP and the "Modi wave." India's main opposition party, the strongly nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, is positioned to win the most seats in the lower house of parliament, though it is not likely to win the outright majority necessary to form a government without coalition partners. The BJP's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, has gathered momentum by positioning himself as an advocate for economic development and good governance. Many expect Modi's business-friendly campaign to lead his party to its biggest victory ever.

4. Modi's charisma and controversy. Modi has a strong record as chief minister of the state of Gujarat and a "strong man" reputation that many see as a welcome contrast to current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But Modi has also been criticized for his authoritarian bent and ties to right-wing Hindu organizations.

Although an investigation set up by India's Supreme Court cleared him of wrongdoing in 2012, some voters remain suspicious of Modi's role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. The U.S. State Department denied Modi a visa in 2005 because of his alleged culpability, but it changed tack in March, saying it would welcome Modi to the United States if he wins the election.

Infographic: India's vote by the numbers

5. The crisis of confidence in the Congress party. Anemic growth, persistent inflation and frequent corruption scandals have tried the public's patience with the Indian National Congress, the country's oldest party and the core of the ruling United Progressive Alliance over the past decade.

Rahul Gandhi, the heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and the party's choice for prime minister, has been portrayed as a reluctant leader, and some believe the Congress will be reduced to its lowest number of seats in history. For its part, the Congress criticizes the BJP's policies as exclusionary and emphasizes its social welfare programs, aimed at helping the poor.

6. Nepotism is here to stay. The competition between Gandhi and Modi has become something of a public referendum on India's entrenched political elite.

Rahul Gandhi, who is the son and grandson of previous prime ministers, is depicted by critics as cosseted and out-of-touch, while Modi's campaign emphasizes his humble origins working for his father's tea stall as a child. But despite Modi's popular appeal, research by Patrick French indicates nepotism remains alive and well in Indian politics. Nearly 30% of current members of parliament are from political families; for parliamentary members younger than 40, the figure rises to two-thirds.

7. Criminality among the Indian political class is endemic. An astonishing 30% of the current parliament faces criminal charges. Judging by the new crop of candidates, it isn't going to be much better in the new parliament. According to research published last week, almost a fifth of the candidates face criminal charges.

By contrast, none of the sitting members of the U.S. Congress is facing criminal charges; in 2013, only two members -- or less than half a percent -- were convicted of a crime.

Put another way -- and this may come as something of a surprise to those many American readers who hold the U.S. Congress in low regard -- Indian parliamentarians are on average 60 times more likely to be charged with a crime than their U.S. counterparts.

Corruption and criminality may prove hard to shake in Indian politics, since the rising cost of campaigns means they are dominated by the wealthy. The Centre for Media Studies estimates that Indian politicians may spend around $5 billion campaigning, triple the sum for the last national poll in 2009. The figure is second only to the $7 billion spent in the 2012 U.S. presidential race, the world's most expensive election.

8. The role of young voters and social media. First-time voters are expected to make up roughly 10% of those who will go to the polls this election. India's population is very young: More than 65%, or nearly 800 million people, are younger than 35, according to the latest census. This youth bulge is lending weight to candidates who prioritize economic development, as well as increasing the importance of social media in campaigns.

Young voters grew up after reforms to liberalize the Indian economy began in 1991, and thus have high expectations for leaders to reignite India's growth. In large part because of the youth contingent, spending on social media advertising during the election may reach $83 million.

9. The rise of the Aam Aadmi Party. An offshoot of the anti-corruption protests in 2011-2012, the AAP galvanized support with its surprise showing in last year's local elections for the Delhi Assembly.. The AAP won 28 of the legislature's 70 seats and its leader, activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal, was appointed as Delhi's chief minister. But while the AAP has energized young voters and the middle class, it hasn't yet shown it can transition from a protest movement to a governing force.

After failing to deliver on key election promises, Kejriwal quit his post in Delhi after only 49 days in office. The AAP is expected to take votes from more established parties in the election and could be instrumental in forming a governing coalition.

10. Women are raising their voices. Long expected to vote in line with the male members of their families, Indian women are becoming an electoral force in their own right.

Women account for 48.5% of the electorate, but in some recent polls, they have voted in higher numbers than men. Inflation and safety are likely to be among their most pressing concerns as women control most household budgets and violence against women is an emergent political issue. The gang rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi in December 2012 and numerous other cases have sparked widespread protests and precipitated a reckoning of the position and treatment of Indian women.

11. The key role of regional parties. No party has won an outright majority in India since 1989. This year's results are likely to be the same, meaning India's regional parties will likely be instrumental in helping the BJP or Congress form a government. Regional parties control five of India's biggest states -- Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Odisha, which together account for more than 200 Lok Sabha seats -- and their wide variety of agendas and proclivities make determining India's future policy direction difficult.

Whether elected officials can deliver the decisive governance that India needs will depend in large part on the character and strength of the governing coalition.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT