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The World's Largest Democracy, India, Goes to Polls

The world's largest democracy is heading for the polls this month. India will hold its 15th parliamentary elections since gaining independence from Britain in 1947. Neither of the two major political parties expects to get a majority in the elections, so India is moving toward another coalition government.

Polling to elect a new 545-member Lok Sabha, India's lower house of parliament, will run in five phases from 16 April to 13 May. 714 million voters are eligible to cast ballots. It is the largest democratic voting exercise ever conducted, not surprising since India's electorate represents over a tenth of the world's population.

For the last five years, the ruling Congress Party, headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has held together a coalition called the United Progressive Alliance, or UPA. The UPA was formed soon after the 2004 general elections when the previous coalition headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was defeated. That coalition was titled the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The upcoming elections are significant because they mark the first time that a coalition government has completed an uninterrupted five-year term.

Ralph Nurnberger, adjunct professor of international relations at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., says India has been able to establish a democratic system successfully.

“It is outstanding that India has been able to maintain its democratic system since independence in 1947, and obviously it serves as a model for the rest of the world, particularly the developing world, as an example of including people in the representative form of government.”

The Congress-led alliance is running on what it claims is a record of progress and its secular character. During four of its five years in office, growth rates in India were well over 8% annually. Even now, amid a global slump, India is the world's second fastest growing economy.

Opposition BJP's prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani says his party ensures good governance, economic development and security for all. The party also promises a tougher anti-terror law. India has seen several militant attacks across the country in recent years including the attack on Mumbai last year.

Satish Kumar, a former professor of diplomacy at Jawahar Lal Nehru University in New Delhi, says the Congress-led coalition has a better chance of returning to power once votes are cast. “As of now the prospects of Congress seem to be better, partly because of the last five years. There are quite a few things which the Congress can be said to have achieved, and which have found a favorable response from the people of India as a whole."

The Congress Party, led by the Nehru-Gandhi family, ruled India for 50 years following independence from Britain. Sonya Gandhi, wife of former prime minister, the late Rajiv Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi), is now president of the Congress party. Their son Rahul Gandhi is a parliamentary candidate and is attracting huge crowds of young people.

But India is now completing a decade in which coalitions dominated by one or the other political party have held power. Analysts say there is nothing wrong with coalitions, which ensure that all regions of the country are represented in the central (federal) government

In 1952, when India held its first parliamentary elections following British colonial rule, many people expressed doubts about giving Indians, many of them illiterate, the right to vote. Looking back over 57 years, Professor Satish Kumar says Indian democratic institutions have withstood the test of time.

“Indian democratic institutions have worked wonderfully well,” says Prof. Satish Kumar. “It is the largest democracy; it is the most heterogeneous democracy. It is a democracy with a multiple religions, languages, ethnic groups and all kinds of other diversities, and yet the country has managed to accommodate all of them into a system where gradually all of them are feeling that they have a voice in the running of the government.”

Professor Ralph Nurberger echoes these views. “That is truly astounding, particularly in a country as diverse as India in terms of religion, ethnic make-up and everything else. It is remarkable that everyone is willing to accept as a basic policy - a democratic form of government. And that is truly to the credit of the people of India.

Nearly four million officials will conduct the elections, and there will be more than 900,000 polling booths, all fitted with electronic voting machines. Analysts say all pre-poll forecasts point to a return of the Congress-led coalition Whatever the outcome, India's fifteenth parliamentary all-electronic elections mark a milestone in that nation's democratic tradition.