The General Elections are about to take place later this month in India. In a country of 1.1bn people where there are over a dozen official languages and large swaths of the rural areas have very low literacy rates, it’s incredible that elections manage to take place at all.
You could easily compare India to Europe. Imagine if all the countries of Europe, with their different customs, culture and language, were asked to vote in a general election to nominate a single party to represent them all. It probably couldn’t be done. But if you can imagine that, then you can imagine the kind of difficulties the political parties face here.
The general elections nominate 543 Members of Parliment, of which a party needs a 66% majority to form a government. The newly formed Government then elects a President (the current President is Pratibha Patil) and the President then appoints a Prime Minister (the current Prime Minister is Manmohan Singh) nominated by the party in power.
The role of the Indian President is a bit like the Queen in the UK (according to my enlightened Indian friends). The role is largely ceremonial. The president is the head of the armed forces. The president can dissolve the parliment and call a new general election, they also sign any new bill that parliment want to pass and have little choice to refuse it.
The role of the Prime Minister is just like in the UK. They are responsible for the day to day running of the country, in charge of policy, schmoozing with the world leaders and whatnot.
Just like in the United States, there are two main national parties called Congress and BJP. Congress is more secular, and the BJP is more about Hindu nationalism. The current party in power is the Congress party, and has been in power for the majority of the time since independence in 1947.
In the build up to elections, there is a large amount of political manouvering amongst the national and regional parties. The national parties come to power based on their alliances with the smaller, regional parties as there is no way they can achieve a 66% majority by themselves.
Here in Tamil Nadu there are two main parties, the DMK and AIADMK. Both the Congress and BJP parties are courting them to try and get an ally in the Tamil Nadu state. In return for this, the national parties promise a certain number of parlimentary seats or ministries to the local parties. The political wrangling comes when two different state parties demand a the same ministry .
I can’t speak much about other states in India, but in Tamil Nadu, it’s very much a case of celebrity politics. When the famous actors and actresses reach an age where their looks fade, dancing ability wanes or singing falters, the natural progression is to turn to politics and to bring your large army of fans with you. The leader of the DMK is a very renown scriptwriter and the leader of the AIADMK is an aging 60’s icon actress.
Unlike in England where there are ‘just’ 27 million votes to count and polling lasts for just one day, the elections in India last for 29 days between 16th April and 13th may, with the results not announced until the 16th May.
There are many reasons for this, such as the size of the country, size of population, inaccessibility of rural areas (ie. no proper roads), providing security for voting, and the shear length of time it takes to count the votes.
I’ll write some more about the upcoming elections here later on this month.