Voting Begins in World's Most Colorful Elections in India

Urbana, Illinois is the home of Miss America 2003, Erika Harold. She went on to get a law degree from Harvard University and has tried and failed twice to become a Republican candidate for Congress from her home state. Halfway around the world, Miss India 1999 went on to a glamorous career in India's movie business with some minor successes to her name. The 35-year-old is now a candidate for Parliament for the new anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP or Common's Man's Party), of which her soldier father is a co-founder. In socially conservative India, Ms. Panag's Facebook page still features her in a plunging neckline. As a candidate from the Union Territory of Chandigarh, she seems to have a fair chance of winning.

South from Illinois, Texas politics is never dull. Larry Kilgore is such a strong proponent of the Lone Star state seceding from the United States, that he's legally changed his name to Secede Kilgore. He's run many times for many posts including Governor of Texas, although no one forecast victory any time soon. If you follow news from India's southern state of Tamil Nadu, you may be surprised to discover a politician named M.K. Stalin who is commonly referred to as Stalin. No, he did not legally change his name and he does not lead any kind of fascist movement in India. His father, M. Karunanidhi, is the longtime leader of powerful regional party the DMK, whose third son was in March 1953, the same month when the Soviet dictator died. The unusual name has not held M.K. Stalin back, and he held the title of Deputy Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu until 2011.

Bachelor Parties

To be a prominent politician in America, it seems that it helps greatly to have a spouse whom the candidate and display. A loving family including a devoted dog makes for great photo opportunities for aspirants to high office. While there are plenty, some would say too many, political families in India, there is also a great tradition of political leaders who never married.

The former tea-seller who seems the media favorite to lead India next month, is the Bhartiya Janata Party's Narendra Modi. He currently leads the western of state of Gujarat which is a great example of business-led success in India. The 63-year-old Modi is allegedly celibate, having devoted all his energies to the right wing BJP. Controversy around his inaction (or actions) in religious riots of 2002 still dogs him a bit, but this week's Economist features him on the cover with the headline "Can Anyone Stop Narendra Modi?"

Start to Google Rahul Gandhi, the 43 year bachelor who is the prime ministerial candidate for India's current ruling party, and the search engine might try to fill in the term "girlfriend" or "jokes." Gandhi is the great grandson of India's first Prime Minister (PM), Jawaharlal Nehru. In a democracy, his father Rajiv, and his grandmother Indira also held the PM's job. His mother the Italian born erstwhile Antonia Maino, now known as Sonia Gandhi, is the party's president. Intellectuals have allegedly had a hard time taking Rahul seriously, and his leadership of recent elections in India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh was a dismal failure. But massive transfer payment laws to give jobs to unemployed rural youth by the millions, huge raises to government employees and other trappings of ruling coalition incumbency politics make Gandhi a viable contender.

Actually, the 814 million Indians who are eligible to vote between today and the middle of May will be electing their local members of parliament since India does not have direct voting for the leadership position. India is the fourth largest economy by purchasing power parity and its trade and geopolitical importance to the United States has grown rapidly in the two decades since the country liberalized its economy. The country hosts more voters than the United Stated and all of Western Europe put together, and mainstream American media still favors news about voting in relatively tiny countries such as Eqypt and Afghanistan. Keen India watchers know that the 2014 elections are likely to be India's most influential in three decades.

The married man to challenge Gandhi and Modi is engineer Arvind Kejriwal whose upstart AAP grew out of India's frustration with mega corruption scandals that have accompanied economic growth. The AAP's election symbol is a common broom, and they plan to clean up Indian politics. Beside glamorous Gul Panag, the party is fielding a number of journalists, doctors, lawyers, artists and professionals in India's 543 seat lower house, the Lok Sabha.

Ladies Rule?

Women leaders play a key role in India's democratic tradition which granted universal suffrage from its very first elections.

Didi (elder sister) is the nickname for the firebrand Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister (CM, akin to an American governor) of the historically left-leaning state of West Bengal. Didi fired her own party's Railway Minister some time ago, because he authorized a fare increase in India's behemoth train system. She is renowned for her austere lifestyle, wearing no makeup and has never married. Her regional party, the TMC, disrupted 34 years of rule by India's communists.

In Tamil Nadu there is a long history of mixing politics and movie making and its current Chief Minister is the star of dozens Tamil language movies, Jayalalitha. Known as Amma (mother) to many of her followers, she is anything but austere. The Guinness Book of World Records says she hosted a reception banquet for over 150,000 guests at her foster son's wedding in 1995. "A fortress topped with cannons and winged mythological creatures was constructed from plywood at the entrance of the wedding grounds. The three mile drive from the temple to the grounds was strewn with rose petals and lined with 600 Grecian columns." Jayalalitha is also unmarried.

India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, also features another unmarried elder sister, this one known as "Behenji". The former Chief Minister of the state, Mayawati, leads a regional party called the Bahujan Samaj Party or BSP whose power base in the historically disadvantage "Dalit" community. While her party lost state elections badly in 2012, in the wake of a lavish personality cult period in which she constructed large statues of herself, the party is still a serious player in regional politics.

What's next?

The main parties have announced their election platforms, known as manifestoes in India, but as in America, few voters bother with the details and the election is fought in India's hyperactive and cacophonous media. The internet still plays a relatively minor role, with the exception of the new AAP's outreach to youth. Newspapers, television and billboards are inundated with political messages.

Polling continues from April 7 until May 12. Google has established an India election hub to bring together news and trends. All voting is 100 percent electronic and the winners of parliamentary seats will be announced on May 16. It is possible that no single party or group of parties will have a majority, and so the alignment for the final configuration of India's government could take some more time.