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India's elections are a mammoth undertaking

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
March 14, 2024

As India's general election draws closer, officials have been preparing for world's largest event management exercise. DW looks at what's involved.

A shopkeeper displays campaigning material of political parties for sale ahead of the West Bengal state legislative assembly elections, Kolkata, India, 27 February, 2021
India's electorate is four times the size of the United States, meaning more than 10% of the world's population is eligible to vote this yearImage: Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto/picture alliance

In India, around 970 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots during the upcoming election .

The vote will determine whether the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be elected a rare third consecutive term in power.

People eligible to vote in the world's most populous country include 497 million male, 471 million female and 48,044 third-gender electors, according to India's Election Commission (EC), which is overseeing the gargantuan exercise in democracy.

Largest festival of democracy

More women than men have enrolled as new electors for the upcoming vote, said the poll panel, and over 20 million voters aged 18 to 29 have been added to the electoral roll.

Voters will cast their ballots in one of the 1.25 million booths, spread across densely populated megacities and far-flung villages, overseen by 15 million election officials across the 28 states and nine union territories.

India's electoral rules say there must be a polling station within 2 kilometers (about 1.2 miles) of every habitation.

In addition, the EC will fan out a whole gamut of observers to ensure the fairness of the ballot.

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Almost 340,000 security personnel from the central armed police forces have been requisitioned to assist the existing state police officers — a task that requires a lot of logistical organization.

"We have underlined the need for timely movement of central forces being deployed for election duty" an EC official told DW. "Indian Railways is roped in to move forces from one location to another."

Meticulous planning

Once the election schedule is announced, the EC enforces a model code of conduct — a set of guidelines for the conduct of political parties and candidates during elections.

Its main purpose is to ensure that ruling parties do not misuse their position of advantage to gain an unfair advantage, and it's designed to prevent practices that are deemed corrupt.

"The logistics of an Indian general elections has always been formidable," former chief election commissioner S. Y. Quraishi told DW. "When the country voted in the first election of 1951-52, almost a sixth of the world's population voted. The numbers are staggering."

At that time, out of a total population of 360 million, about 173.2 million people were eligible to vote. The turnout in the first general elections was 45%. In the fray were 53 political parties contesting for 489 parliamentary seats; voting went on for about four months.

In 2019, 8,054 candidates representing 673 parties stood for elections from 543 constituencies for a shot at becoming a member of parliament.

Quraishi, who wrote the book "An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election," pointed out that meticulous planning is gone through on all fronts.

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This includes different aspects that go into the organization of the elections which are carefully mapped — including deployment of security forces and electronic voting machines.

Technology and artificial intelligence 

India has been using secure electronic voting machines since 1999. In 2014, it introduced a second machine, a printer that deposits a hard copy of each ballot into a sealed box called a Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail, ensuring an additional layer of security. Typically, 3 million to 4 million voting machines are deployed for a general election in India.

Election officials must not only account for the most remote voters, but also provide efficient systems for those in the country's crowded cities. While polls are staggered, electronic voting will enable counting to be concluded in just a day.

"To organize elections on such a large scale and conduct them in a free and fair manner is certainly a huge task," said Quraishi.

India's electorate is four times the size of the United States, meaning more than 10% of the world's population is eligible to vote this year.

In a lengthy recent report, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in India's last general election, held in 2019, parties and candidates spent an estimated $8.7 billion (€8.02 billion) to woo more than 900 million eligible voters.

Deepfakes: Manipulating elections with AI

With India's Supreme Court scrapping electoral bonds last month, financing polls in the world's largest democracy is expected to be the most expensive. The New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies estimates that political parties and candidates are set to spend more than $14.4 billion in the elections.

The electoral bonds scheme requires donors to purchase electoral bonds from the government-owned State Bank of India in denominations ranging between 1,000 and 10 million rupees (€11.2 and €112,220, or $12 and $120,000).

The donors do not need to disclose their identity, and donations are exempt from taxes. The scheme has been challenged by opposition members and civil society groups on the grounds that it lacked transparency.

Another first in India's upcoming elections is that both the ruling BJP and the main opposition Congress Party will be actively deploying artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance their campaign strategies.

For this reason, the Election Commission will for the first time set up hundreds of control rooms dedicated to spotting fake content on social media.

Edited by: Keith Walker

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