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5 reasons you should be following India’s jaw-droppingly enormous elections

A woman shows her ink-marked finger after casting her vote at Makum village in Tinsukia district in the northeastern Indian state of Assam on April 7, 2014. (Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters)

It's been argued that 2014 will be the biggest year in the history of democracy, with more people than ever before going to the polls to decide their own fate.

Nowhere is that tag more obvious than in India, which is seeing a truly enormous number of people voting between April 7 and May 12. After the votes are counted May 16, we'll know who Indians have elected to their parliament. Whatever party has a majority, or is able to form a majority coalition, will form a government from which a prime minister will lead the country.

Even for those who know nothing about India, this really looks to be one of the most fascinating political events this year, and not just because of its scale. The election is taking place in an increasingly important tech-savvy country, with vital issues of economic problems and nationalism at stake, and a choice between a world famous name and a controversial outsider. It's a fascinating moment in democracy, and one that shouldn't be ignored.

Here's what you should know.

The staggering numbers

As we mentioned before, India's election is ridiculously huge. For example, on Thursday, the biggest day so far, the BBC reported that more than 110 million voters were eligible to cast votes. That's almost double the number of people in the United Kingdom, and 30 million less than the entire population of Russia.

Crazier still, Thursday's figure is just a small part of the broader whole. In total, 815 million people are eligible to vote, as shown in the graphic below, produced by the Indian Embassy in Washington.

As you can probably imagine, organizing 815 million people to vote is a difficult procedure: More than 930,000 polling stations are being set up around the country, with 11 million personnel. In the state of Uttar Pradesh alone, the election will cost 3.7 billion rupees, or $61.5 million, the New York Times reported. That also helps to explain why the election has been staggered on nine days over about a month.

It's an election of firsts

As the graphic above explains, for more than 100 million people, it's their first chance to vote. That is a big factor, and the candidates are aware of it: This map, produced by the 545, shows where election rallies are being held vs. the number of new voters in each state:

In another new twist, the election will be the first to allow non-resident Indians to vote (though they will still have to travel to India to vote), and voters will be allowed to answer "none of the above."

One of the most interesting shifts, however, is the sudden role of technology in the election. Five years have passed since the last election, and in that time circumstances have clearly changed: An SMS alert system called COMET will be used, for example, and Facebook is believed to have been a key factor in getting young, urban voters more engaged that in previous votes (read more about that over at Buzzfeed).

The price of an onion may play a key role

Readers of the financial press may have noticed a lot of headlines coming out about the price of an onion in India over the past few months. "Rains may defeat govt's efforts to calm onion prices quickly" ran one Reuters headline in October. "India to Import Onions for First Time Since 2011 as Prices Surge" Bloomberg wrote a couple of months before.

It sounds strange, but we should remember these questions now, as onions might be a good way to think of one of the key issues in the Indian elections: The economy.

While India was one of the famous BRICS (along with Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa), it's lagged behind the expectations of others, especially China (the Goldman Sachs economist who coined the label later said that India was the biggest disappointment of the lot).

In 2013, a record 35 percent of Indians polled felt that the national economy was getting worse, according to Gallup, and Pew reports that 89 percent of people felt that rising prices were a "very big problem."

As Soutik Biswas wrote for the BBC this month, the wildly varying price of an onion in India (it's reported to have inflated 270 percent over 2013) is one very clear example of the weakness of the Indian economy: in particular, highlighting how India's farming economy is reliant on favorable weather and how prices are inflated by a complex supply chain.

It's become a political issue, with the 2010 "onion crisis" still held against the ruling Congress Party, but onions have a history in India. When Indira Gandhi was swept back to power in the 1980 election, her rallying issue was the price of the onion, and when she won, people called it "the Onion election." Within two years of her election, rising onion prices caused her own political crisis.

The familiar name: Rahul Gandhi

You probably recognize the name here. Rahul Gandhi is often referred to as the “heir apparent” or a “scion” of India’s most prominent political dynasty. His grandmother and father were both prime ministers of India. Now, as head of the Congress Party, Gandhi is facing his biggest test, as he is expected to carry the party into the elections during a time it has been marred by economic incompetence and damaging corruption scandals.

Gandhi, who has been a member of India’s parliament since 2004, was elevated to the head of his party last year. Since then, he has tried to distance himself as a different candidate, indicating a generational shift of sorts in India’s politics, in which a majority of politicians are 60 years and older and have been in politics for decades. Although many in his party wanted him to have a prominent role sooner, he was seen as someone who was shy, often being referred to as the “reluctant prince.” Gandhi’s campaigning in some of the most important states during the state elections last year was seen as a failure, as the Congress party performed poorly, raising doubts about his leadership abilities.

Earlier in January, Gandhi appeared for his first formal interview almost a decade after entering politics. During his interview, he expressed his vision for India, focusing primarily on empowering women and mobilizing the youths, but he failed to address why his party was unable to tackle corruption.

Gandhi has campaigned aggressively this year, trying to woo younger voters. During his speech in Rajasthan last month, he promised that his party would give opportunities to new and young faces to represent their people. With polls showing rival Narendra Modi in the lead, Gandhi has lately launched a series of blistering attacks on his opponent. “He will divide the nation into pieces, and make people fight against each other,” he said of Modi during an election rally in Chhattisgarh.

With a faltering economy, his party's reputation is already in jeopardy. If Gandhi loses to Modi, which many say is bound to happen, that would likely mean the long-held family grip on one of India's most powerful political parties will also slowly start to slip away.

The favorite: Narendra Modi

The man who will most likely become the leader of world’s largest democracy sleeps only about 3.5 hours a night, admits to being a workaholic and says he has no time to read books and no pastimes or any other activities except for early-morning yoga.

For some in India, Narendra Modi is a role model, a muscular administrator who has the competence to turn around the nation. As a chief minister of the state of Gujarat, Modi was credited for rooting out corruption and promoting rapid economic growth, making it an investment hub for international companies.

But for others, Modi is an extremely controversial figure (as our former colleague Max Fisher puts it, much of the world seems afraid of him) with a worrying Hindu nationalist history. During the riots in Gujarat in 2002, Modi was accused of not only failing to prevent them, but going as far as encouraging Hindu mobs to massacre nearly 2,000 Muslims. Modi’s visa to the United States was revoked in 2005 and has been denied one since then for largely that reason. However, if Modi wins the election, it would put the United States in a difficult position because he would automatically qualify for a diplomatic visa (A-1 status) as head of state.

India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has in some measure gambled by giving Modi the candidacy for prime minister, with a belief that the wounds of the 2002 killings have healed and people have moved on. So far, it has proven to be a good gamble for the Hindu nationalist party, as India has seen massive support for Modi. But at the same time, there are fears that in taking a risk with Modi, BJP is  alienating the Muslim population, who make up 15 percent of India’s voters.

But if his campaigning across the country is any sign, Modi seems to have done his homework. According to the 545, Modi is the only candidate who has visited several key states that are home to a total of about 23 million first-time voters. Drawing that demographic to support him will be key, as his competitors Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal are also seeking to attract young voters.

That's it for now. India's voting will continue until May 12. The votes will be counted May 16.

Update 4/10/2014: The date of the vote count has been corrected from May 19 to May 16.