2009 election preview: India

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At the recent US election, over 131 million people cast votes in the presidential contest. Yet Indian elections take place on a much larger scale.  The last federal election, in 2004, saw 389 million votes cast for 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the Indian lower house.

The world’s largest democracy goes back to the polls by May 2009. The last election in 2004 saw the government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and his allies in the National Democratic Alliance, defeated by the United Progressive Alliance, dominated by the Indian National Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi.

Following the election Gandhi declined to become Prime Minister, with the Prime Ministership going to former Finance Minister Manmohan Singh.

The Indian party system is simultaneously fractured and coalesced into two major party alliances. The 2004 election saw 39 parties win seats in Parliament. Yet the election was a clear contest between the UPA and the NDA, which between them covered 21 of those 39 parties, and the result was a clear majority for the United Progressive Alliance. The two alliances are dominated by the Indian National Congress, a centrist party dominated by the Gandhi family, and the Hindu/nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party respectively. In addition, 60 seats are held by a variety of communist and socialist parties who have lined up as a third alliance. Many regional-based parties run independently of the alliances and collectively hold over a quarter of the Lok Sabha’s seats.

Elections take place over a number of stages. In 2004, four election days were held between April 20 and May 10, with constituencies being allocated to different election dates. Counting did not commence until the final votes had been cast, with ballot boxes being opened on May 13.

The Indian general election isn’t the typical sort of election I would cover. However, it is a Commonwealth country using a similar first-past-the-post electoral system. Add that to the fact that it is the world’s largest electoral contest, and it is a fascinating demonstration of Westminster politics outside its Western habitat. Clearly I’m no expert on Indian politics, so if anyone is an expert, please comment below.

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