NEW DELHI — India begins the mammoth task of choosing its next government Monday when its nine stage, five-week parliamentary election gets underway. The polls pitch the ruling Congress Party against the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and are widely expected to usher in a change of government in the nation of 1.2 billion people.
Devraj Singh is a 19-year-old resident of a slum tucked in between sprawling bungalows where top politicians live in the Indian capital. He has not been able to get a full-time job since he finished school two years ago.
Singh wants to cast his vote for a government that will lower prices and generate employment for people like him.
As an undergraduate student at Delhi University with a middle class background, Shambhavi Vats, wants attention paid to issues such as women’s safety and much more.
“I think we need help with almost each and every sphere of governance, we need changes, we need development in everything,” said Vats.
Voters in India will head to the polls starting Monday to choose 543 members of the lower house of parliament. Some of the key issues that will likely take prominence include controlling inflation, creating jobs for a growing young population and ensuring better governance.
In a strong bid to unseat the ruling Congress Party, and win over voters like Singh, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party headed by its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, has made development its key campaign issue.
Sanjay Kumar at New Delhi’s Center for Developing Studies says good leadership has emerged as a key voter concern, which will likely benefit the BJP.
“They [voters] want a strong leader, they think that a person who is capable of delivering development, and giving a stable government. That is the sheer notion among a large section of voters at this moment…their vote is getting motivated by their attraction to the leader of the BJP, Narendra Modi,” said Kumar.
On the other side, the incumbent Congress Party has failed to project a prime ministerial candidate, although its campaign is led by Rahul Gandhi, heir to the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty.
The party is promising more benefits to poor people, as it tries to win back the public support it lost during its second term in office due to corruption scandals and high inflation. But polls indicate the Congress Party is set to lose power in one of its worst electoral performances.
In a diverse country with some 815 million voters, social divisions will also play a key role in the election, with many communities preferring to opt for candidates who represent their caste.
The performance of a host of regional parties that dominate large, populous states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the north and Tamil Nadu in the south is also crucial. These local parties have spoken of putting together a so-called Third Front to challenge the two main parties if together they win enough votes.
And seeking to make its debut in parliament is a new party (Aam Aadmi Party) born on an anti-corruption plank which put up an impressive performance in local elections held in Delhi last December.
With security a key challenge, polling is spread over nine days - until May 12 - to give millions of security forces time to move around and protect the 930,000 polling booths spread from the high Himalayas to heartland states such as Bihar.
Of particular concern are areas prone to violence such as Kashmir, the northeast and a large swath along the country’s eastern belt dominated by Maoist rebels, who have called for a poll boycott.
Amid concerns that hundreds of candidates with criminal charges are in the fray, the Election Commission has appealed to the country’s voters to not only come out and vote, but also scrutinize the records of candidates carefully. It is hoping for a higher voter turnout than the 58 percent recorded in 2009. And although millions of Indian voters are poor and illiterate, officials feel they have come of age.
R. Balakrishnan is a top official at India's Election Commission. “The awareness level has increased tremendously and the voters have become more participative. The Indian people, our voters are deeply committed to electoral democracy,” said Balakrishnan.
It will be only on May 16 when votes are counted that the country will know who will form the next government and whether its rallying cry for change was heard at polling booths.