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Asia

India goes to the polls

Indians go to the polls from April 7 to May 12 to choose a new government. And the millions of young people in the country will play a major role in what is becoming a new kind of campaign.

814 million Indians have the right to vote in the election, a number larger than the population of Europe. Around 930,000 polling stations have been set up all over the country. This makes the Indian elections the largest in the world. And of these there are a record 100 million first time voters.

Political analysts attach a great deal of importance to this demographic shift. CRS Murthy, Professor in International Organization at Jawaharlal University in New Delhi says, "The young population in Indian demographics has gained unprecedented importance, both in urban as well as rural areas. Therefore, I believe, they will decide the difference between the winner and the loser."

This has consequences, according to Murthy: "The pattern of political campaigns by established political parties has changed dramatically to involve the youth.” Moreover, to reach young voters campaigning is going digital for the first time in a big way: “I think the potential for youth participation in politics has increased because of the technological interventions, such as the role of social media, which the youth is quite well acquainted with."

Not just first time voters

But the importance of first time voters is not the only factor which is making this election different from elections in the past. There has also been a marked shift in the attitudes and electoral preferences which take public disenchantment with politics as a whole into account.

For the first time voters will have "NOTA" i.e. None Of The Above option. If they do not approve of any of the candidates then they can press the NOTA button on the voting machines.

Voters are not – it appears – willing to accept anything. Since the first national elections in 1952, the ruling Congress party has held power for over 40 years. The Hindu-nationalist party BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) has been the main opposition since its existence in the 80s. But now a new populist party with strong grassroots support in the cities has emerged, namely the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party, the common man's party.

Gujarat state Chief Minister and senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi speaks during an election campaign in Allahabad, India, Sunday, April 12, 2009.

Modi has sought to place economic development rather than religion or caste into the forefront of voters' minds.

Apart from the all pervading corruption in India's ruling elite, women's safety has become a major issue amongst young middle class voters who do not accept the patriarchal view of society propagated by the older generation.

The current government – led by Congress – has been condemned in the media for ignoring the issue of women's safety until forced to do so by public opinion after the terrible rape-murder of a young student in New Delhi in December 2012.

Development and employment

Moreover, India has traditionally been a country of voting based on religion and caste. However this time round this factor appears to be declining in significance somewhat. The opposition BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has sought to place economic development rather than religion or caste into the forefront of voters' minds. He recently promised to create 10 million new jobs if he comes in power. But his reputation is tarnished.

It is alleged that as Chief Minister of Gujarat he failed to move to end religiously inspired riots in 2002 which led to over 900 deaths. Even though the allegations were never proven, Modi is trying to keep the issue out of the campaign. Political analyst Purushottam Agrawal says, "Modi in particular and BJP in general have been smart enough to shift the focus entirely on to (economic) development. The question of accountability for the 2002 massacre in Gujarat comes directly, so it's good for him not to talk on this issue."

Americanization of Indian politics

Also, the way the BJP has personalized the campaign is new to India. It is Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi (Prime ministerial candidate from Congress and son of the ex PM Rajiv Gandhi). Their personalities are taking precedence over the parties' manifestos.

Congress Party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi gestures as he addresses Congress supporters at the party's headquarters in Srinagar on November 7, 2013.

Experts say Rahul Gandhi appears to be uncomfortable in his new role in the limelight

Purushottam Agrawal again: "BJP has been wanting India to adopt the American presidential (campaigning) style. It suits them fine." The worrying thing for Congress is that their candidate, Rahul Gandhi, is performing poorly. He lacks the charisma of past greats in the family dynasty and appears to be uncomfortable in his new role in the limelight.

Whether the drama of the campaign will be that significant is to be doubted. As CSR Murthy predicts, "The actual drama (…) will start after May 16, after the results are announced. Then, according to the latest polls, Indian voters may have denied both major parties a parliamentary majority by strengthening protest and regional parties. And then the arduous task of building a viable coalition will begin."