In a press conference in the capital New Delhi on Sunday, the country’s chief election commissioner, Sunil Arora, unveiled the timeline for India’s mammoth seven-phase election to be held on April 11, 18, 23, 29 and May 6, 12 and 19.
The counting of votes will be held on May 23.
Elections will also be held simultaneously to four State assemblies — Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Odisha — along with the parliamentary polls. Jammu and Kashmir will not be going to polls in this excercise although the state has been under central rule since the coalition governement state government collapsed in June 2018.
Although admired for its ability to conduct the polls with few hitches, India’s election commission had come under pressure from opposition parties for the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs).
To allay fears of poll fraud, Arora said the Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) system will be used in all the polling booths during the election.
VVPAT is a device that is attached to an EVM and prints a small slip of paper carrying the symbol, name and serial number of the candidate voted for. This is visible to the voter for a short period and can be later used by the ECI to verify the votes.
Sunil Arora, Chief Election Commissioner: Total electorate in this Lok Sabha elections will be 900 million, of which 15 million voters are in the 18-19 age group. pic.twitter.com/LyqvJtu3gQ
— ANI (@ANI) March 10, 2019
The voters will elect 543 of 545 MPs to India’s lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha.
The remaining two seats are reserved for the Anglo-Indian community, which traces part of its ancestry to Europeans who intermarried with Indians in the colonial era. These members are nominated by India’s president.
The two leaders are the strongest challengers from a field of hundreds of political parties from across the culturally and geographically diverse country of 1.3 billion.
Modi, whose right-wing party won an outright majority in the 2014 election, enters the race in a strong position and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hopes to defeat Gandhi’s Congress once again.
His Hindu nationalist political machine is riding on Modi’s personal popularity and an array of emotive issues, including renewed hostility with nuclear-armed rival Pakistan.
But opinion polls have suggested ebbing support for the BJP mainly over jobs and economy, and even that the party may fall short of the 272 seats it needs to form a government on its own.
Gandhi, long criticised as a lacklustre leader, has also started looking more recently like a serious challenger.
Congress, which has ruled India for much of its time since independence from Britain in 1947, won three key state election victories in December, chipping into Modi’s core support base in the Hindi “Cow Belt” regions, home to nearly half a billion voters.
He has also gone on the offensive over Modi’s economic record, with the Congress state wins attributed to the prime minister’s perceived failure to help impoverished farmers and to create enough jobs.
Modi has also sought to contrast his claim of being a humble tea seller against Gandhi, the 48-year-old half-Italian princeling of India’s most famous family.
Gandhi’s party, the Congress, has made alliances with a number of regional parties across India in an attempt to make the 2019 election a bipolar contest between the BJP and a united opposition.
But in critical states like Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 legislators to Lok Sabha, the Congress has failed to align with the main regional players – the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.
India’s election commission has asked political parties not to use images of the country’s armed forces in their campaign posters and other advertising material during the general election.
The poll panel’s notice followed pictures posted on social media recently showing the ruling BJP using images in their campaign posters of a captured Indian Air Force pilot recently returned by Pakistan after a clash with India over the disputed Kashmir territory.
Is BJP allowed to use Abhinandan in its posters? This is Delhi, not some far-flung corner of India.
I covered BJP election rallies in Haryana after Kargil when a serving soldier gave speeches. Slippery slope to politics & military. Enough examples in South Asia to be wary of. pic.twitter.com/DVqz18zA7e
— rama lakshmi (@RamaNewDelhi) March 9, 2019
The election commission said in a notice on its website on Saturday that political parties must refrain from using photographs of defence personnel in advertisements or their election campaign propaganda as the armed forces are “apolitical and neutral stakeholders in a modern democracy”.
The pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, was shot down on February 27 by Pakistani aircraft during clashes between the two nuclear-armed powers that began last month after at least 40 Indian paramilitary police were killed in a suicide blast in Indian-administered Kashmir.
India blamed Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) for the attack, and later air raided a site inside Pakistan it claimed was a JeM training camp. That triggered aerial clashes that led to Varthaman’s capture and subsequent release two days later.
Recent social media posts showed a campaign poster in New Delhi with Varthaman’s face alongside Modi’s, along with the words: “If Modi is in power, it is possible! NaMo again 2019!” NaMo is an acronym for Modi.