970 Million Voters — Elections in India

Aaditya Tiwari
6 min readApr 22, 2024

Excerpt: As India heads to the polls for the upcoming 2024 elections, this piece highlights the evolution and scale of India’s general elections, illustrating the vast logistical efforts involved in ensuring democratic participation, commitment to democratic inclusivity in electoral practices, and the technological advances that have curtailed electoral fraud and bolstered voter confidence.

John Strachey, who was a British official and trained India’s Imperial Civil Services, often started his lectures with a statement claiming The first and most important thing to learn about India is that there is not and never was an India.” Skeptics like him and many others did not believe that India was one entity or could be governed as one. Indian freedom fighters and framers of the constitution on the contrary were convinced of the geographical and cultural unity of India. Furthermore, Jawaharlal Nehru while moving the Objectives Resolution on December 9, 1946 was absolutely clear on the spirit of the Indian state, “…we are aiming at democracy and nothing less than a democracy.” This was further confirmed in writing when the Constitution of India was adopted on November 26, 1949. Article 324 of the Constitution of India provides for an Election Commission that is responsible for the “superintendence, direction and control of elections.” It is under this backdrop that India conducted her first general elections in 1951–52 and is currently undergoing its 18th Lok Sabha elections.

The National Democratic Alliance under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party is contesting for the third consecutive term. The principal challenger is the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance formed by the Indian National Congress, the grand old party of India. The ruling coalition is heading into elections with ‘Modi’s guarantee’, a slogan that signifies delivery, not just empty promises. The opposition parties are emphasizing on “Nyay or Justice” in their campaign, criticizing the current government for not pursuing an inclusive agenda. Rahul Gandhi, the Nehru-Gandhi scion and a member of the main opposition party — the Indian National Congress, is harping on holding a caste census and making opportunities proportional to the respective caste populations. He is attempting to counter the alleged ‘Hindutva’ agenda of BJP by re-experimenting with the Mandalization of the Indian polity. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the other hand is talking of four different castes- ‘Poor, Youth, Women and Farmers’ and attempting to deepen his voter base. All surveys are predicting a landslide victory for the incumbent alliance with significant increase in vote percentage, but nothing can be said about the Indian elections until the last vote is counted. The results will be announced on June 4, 2024 for everyone to see. Beyond the hustle and bustle of the political campaigns around 15 million polling officials manning over a million polling stations are silently working to deliver a free, fair and peaceful election yet again.

First General Elections of India: ‘An Act of Faith

India, unlike her Western counterparts, adopted a universal adult franchise in the first general elections. The Representation of People Act, passed by the Parliament in 1950, set the age of voting as 21. This herculean task was led by Sukumar Sen, member of the Indian Civil Service and former Chief Secretary of West Bengal. India at that time had a literacy rate of 18.33% and 173 million (173,212,343) electors. Adding to this complexity, India was voting simultaneously for the Parliament as well as the State Assemblies. For the elections, approximately 132,000 polling stations were established, and 338,000 policemen were deployed for election duty. 14 national parties, 39 state parties and 1 independent were in foray for the elections. The first general elections had 1,874 candidates for the parliament and 15,361 candidates for state assemblies contesting for 4500 constituencies. The voter turnout for the first general elections was 44.87%.

One significant issue that the Election Commision had to encounter was the cultural hesitation among many women in northern India. These women preferred to register to vote as someone’s mother or wife rather than under their own names. Sukumar Sen, responsible for laying the foundations of the elections in India, was disturbed by what he saw as an outdated practice and instructed officials to list women by their own names on the electoral rolls. Despite these efforts, around 2.8 million women who did not comply or whose husbands did not permit them were removed from the voter lists. Robert Trumbull, reporting for the New York Times described the first general elections of India as history’s biggest free elections and an ‘Unprecedented Experiment in Democracy’.

Strengthening the Democratic Process

Trust in the fairness of the electoral process and participation of the youth in elections have contributed to deepening of democratic process in India. In 1988, with the sixty-first amendment act to the Constitution of India, the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 to attract a greater number of young voters. Introduction of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) too has made the electoral process smooth and less cumbersome for both voters and the Election Commission. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, India saw the emergence of ‘booth capturing,’ where politicians or criminals forcefully voted for certain candidates at polling stations. This corruption overshadowed the electoral process, which was supposed to celebrate India’s identity after gaining independence, with increasing incidents of violence and fraud. A study in 2017 by Dr. Shamika Ravi analyzed the effect of using Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) on electoral fraud, democracy, and development in India. By examining state elections from 1976 to 2007 and utilizing variations in election timing and results across states, the study found that EVMs significantly reduced electoral fraud. The study also showed that EVMs helped empower socially weaker sections and made the electoral process more competitive. This improved the trust of Indians in free and fair elections.

World’s Largest Elections

More than 80 countries, including the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, Taiwan etc. have gone or will undergo general elections in 2024. India will see its general elections begin from April 19, 2024 and will be conducted in seven phases till June 1, 2024. Four state assemblies namely, Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Odisha will also undergo elections simultaneously in different phases. 970 million Indians are eligible voters for the 18th Lok Sabha- 470 million are women and 18 million first time voters, making it the ‘largest democratic election’ on the face of the earth. In the 2014 and 2019 general elections, voter turnout was 66.44% and 67.11%, respectively. In the 2019 general election, the longstanding gap between male and female voter turnout closed, with women voting at higher rates than men for the first time on record. If the voter turnout trend holds, the elections in 2024 may see an unprecedented 650 million Indians coming out to vote for the next Government. India’s election regulations mandate a polling station within 2 kilometers of every home, causing the election workers to navigate extreme terrains. The Election Commission leaves no stone unturned in ensuring that every voter gets an equal opportunity to make their voice heard. An example of this is the lone resident of Gir National Park in Gujarat, home to Asiatic lions, has a unique polling station equipped with an electronic voting machine, all for himself. Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India, known for its extensive forest cover and challenging terrain created a polling station for just one female voter in Malogam and six election workers had to journey 30–40 km over two days to set it up

No party or leader can take the electorate for granted and has to fight for the very last vote. The journey from the skepticism about the unity of India, to the formation of a robust democratic system is a testament to the resilience and determination of India’s citizens, institutions and its political leaders. General elections in India not only surpass geographical and cultural barriers but also set a precedent for inclusivity. The measures taken to ensure every eligible voter counts underscore the commitment to India’s democratic ethos. This foundational moment has continued to evolve, leading to India becoming home to the world’s largest and most vibrant democratic exercises. Elections in India are a vibrant spectacle, aptly earning them the moniker “the dance of democracy.” The energy is palpable, and enthusiasm of participants often turn the process into a lively, dynamic affair that captures the diverse and spirited essence of India itself.

(This was published in Columbia SIPA’s publication.)

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Aaditya Tiwari

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