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India election: What you need to know

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
April 17, 2024

India's 2024 general election is poised to be one of the biggest and longest in the country's history. However, little is expected to change politically with the ruling BJP leading the polls.

A woman shows her inked finger after casting her ballot to vote. Behind her, women line up to vote.
India's 2024 general election is a massive logistical undertakingImage: AFP

The world's biggest election begins in India on Friday, with around 970 million registered voters eligible to cast their votes in a mammoth seven-phase poll starting April 19 and lasting six weeks.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is hoping to win a third successive term, as voters elect 543 members of the Lok Sabha, India's lower house of parliament.

The contest involves 6 national parties, 57 state parties, and 2,597 smaller parties which are allowed on the ballot but do not meet the terms to be officially recognized by the national Election Commission.

However, the main race will be between India's two biggest political parties; the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Indian National Congress (INC).

In 2024, to present a cohesive opposition to the BJP and Modi, Congress is at the lead of a 28-party alliance with several regional opposition parties, under a banner called the "Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance," or INDIA.

Modi and BJP remain popular with voters

According to survey and opinion polls, Prime Minister Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP are widely expected to come out on top in the 2024 election.

India's political parties bet on influencers to swing votes

Modi is a popular leader, partly thanks to a platform aimed at India's Hindu majority, which comprises 80% of the population. Modi has also ushered in various economic growth schemes, and has promised that India will become the world's third largest economy by 2029.

In the 2019 election, the BJP secured a landslide victory with 303 seats, and formed a coalition which controls a total of 353 seats. The Congress party, on the other hand, won 52 seats, and added 91 more with allies.

Now, with the BJP in power for a decade with the prospect of securing five more years, critics say the Modi government is reversing India's decadeslong commitment to multiparty democracy and secularism.

Since the BJP was reelected in 2019, tensions between Hindus and India's Muslim minority have escalated.

The BJP's continuous reliance on an aggressive Hindu nationalist agenda has been effective to secure votes in the past. But the BJP's political opponents say the party's ultra-nationalist rhetoric threatens to displace secularism as the foundation of India's constitution.

Syeda Hameed, a women's rights activist and a former member of India's Planning Commission, fears the constitution could be altered if the BJP wins the general election again.

"It has been declared very openly that India will become a theocratic state if they [BJP] alter the constitution depending on the majority that they have," she told DW.

"That is one palpable fear we have that constitution can be changed and the whole climate of oppression can be much exacerbated," Hameed added.

The opposition bloc has been accusing the BJP government of democratic backsliding while also raising issues related to unemployment and price inflation during the high-stakes campaign.

Narendra Modi and BJP senior leaders on a stage
Modi and the BJP introduced the party's election manifesto on April 14Image: Manish Swarup/AP/picture alliance

World's largest electorate

According to official numbers, India has 497 million male voters and 471 million female voters. The electorate has grown by 6% compared to the last general election in 2019.

Over 20 million young voters in the 18 to 29 age group have been added to the electorate.

"The young are exhibiting a different trend, and the interesting trend is that they are not merely voting just for parties but for leaders," BJP politician G V L Narasimha Rao told DW.

"It is the image of the leaders and of the candidates which seems to be an important factor for them than the elder counterparts," Rao added.

Turnouts for Indian elections are generally high. In 2019, 66% of voters cast a ballot, according to the Election Commission of India (ECI).

How does the election work?

India holds a general election every five years. The 2024 election will choose the 18th Lok Sabha, the lower house of paliament. The country's first election after independence was held from October 1951 to February 1952.

National elections are overseen by the Election Commission of India (ECI), which deploys election observers to ensure transparency throughout the six weeks of voting.

Over the six-week election, voting takes place staggered by region, which is determined by the ECI based on factors like the population of the state, along with political factors like the potential for disruption or security concerns.

Voting in the final phase will take place on June 1, and all the ballots will be counted on June 4. Results will be announced on the same day. To secure a majority, a party or coalition must get 272 seats in parliament.

The staggered voting by region also allows election officials, observers and security personnel to travel from one region to another, and ensure there is no malfeasance.

The ECI has enforced a model code of conduct, which is a set of guidelines for the conduct of political parties and candidates during elections and effectively imposes penalties on those who break the rules.

The main purpose of the code is to ensure that ruling parties do not misuse their position to gain an unfair edge, with the rules also designed to avert practices that are deemed corrupt.

Almost 340,000 security personnel from the central armed police forces have been requisitioned to assist existing state police forces, who will be transported by rail from one location to another.

Four workers pack boxes at an ink company
Workers in India pack ink vials used to mark who has voted and prevent ballot duplicationImage: Rakesh Nair/REUTERS

Ahead of voting, India's chief election commissioner, Rajiv Kumar, appealed to political parties to remain civil particularly with issues like hate speech and misinformation coming to the forefront during the campaign.

"We are committed to a political ethical discourse. I would appeal to parties to maintain decorum and refrain from abuses and personal attacks," Kumar told the media.

Billions for campaign spending

Electoral rules mandate that a polling station must be available within 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) of every home. In 2024, voters will cast their ballots at over 1.25 million polling stations on 5.5 million electronic voting machines (EVMs) set up across India's 28 states and nine union territories.

India has been using secure EVMs since 1999. In 2014, printers were introduced that deposit a hard copy of each ballot into a sealed box called a "Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail," ensuring an additional layer of security.

In the last 2019 election, an estimated $8.7 billion (€8.02 billion) was spent by political parties and candidates.

However, this time the figure has gone up with the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies estimating that political parties and candidates are set to spend more than $14.4 billion in the elections.

India election to start on April 19

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11