A high-tech affair at India's polls
The ruling BJP is expected to win the elections, which begin Tuesday and involve some 675 million voters.
The world's largest democracy doesn't do anything small.Skip to next paragraph
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Just ask A.N. Jha. As deputy election commissioner, it is Mr. Jha's job to ensure that, starting Tuesday, 675 million eligible voters will be able to cast their votes from the smallest desert village of Rajasthan to the rain-soaked jungles of Manipur, and from the Himalayan heights of Uttaranchal to the dreamy aquamarine coasts of Tamil Nadu.
There is one complication. This will be the first all-electronic Indian election, with some 725,000 electronic voting machines in every voting station in the country. No small task. But no hanging chads for India, thank you.
An experiment in cutting-edge voting is only part of the story of India's election process. Democracy is still a passionate exercise here - full of gimmicks and movie-star glamour, high technology and cheap thuggery, and, quite often, serious ideas about India's future place in the world. All of this contributes to much higher voter turnouts than one sees in the US. The winners may be convicts or holy men or seasoned pros, but the end result - and the three-week process of voting - can be as entertaining as a Bollywood thriller.
Present opinion polls give the advantage to the current ruling coalition, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, but no election in India is ever merely about results.
First, getting voting machines to the masses is a Herculean task, requiring the organizational skills of a general, the energy of a long-distance runner, and the patience of the mahatma. "It's a huge number of people, a huge, huge exercise," says Jha, taking a breather between logistics meetings last week. "If things go well, and I'm sure we'll pull it off, as we have been doing for more than 50 years, maybe I'll take a break after that."
In India, "people, and especially the poor, see their vote as an asset that must be used," says D.L. Sheth, a political scientist at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in Old Delhi.
"There is a lot of enthusiasm at election time. It's turned into a carnival, and people go out into the streets and celebrate, take part in parades, with music and lights. Maybe it's because so many other things in life are not so easy, and here you can get a sense of one's efficacy, what one vote can do."
There is certainly much at stake in this election. India's economy is booming, achieving a 10.8 percent growth rate this past quarter - higher than China's. Both of the major parties take credit for this economic boom. The Congress Party says the boom is the result of more than a decade of economic reforms initiated in the late 1980s by their late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The BJP, which has implemented its own liberalization reforms in the past six years, says the boom is theirs.
Also at stake is India's warming relationship with Pakistan, its longtime nuclear rival. Just two years ago, India and Pakistan had put a combined one million soldiers on their long border and pledged to go to war "once and for all." Now, the two countries are talking of peace again, symbolized by two cricket series, which culminated last week in India's triumph.