THE BLOG

World's Largest Democracy Prepares for Biggest Ever Elections

03/24/2014 04:28 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2014

Hopes for maintaining freedom and democracy are shaky in many countries today from Egypt, to Ukraine, to Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other hand the continued success of autocracies such as China has its scholars arguing that they have created a system better than Western democracy. The Economist recently ran a six-page cover story entitled "What's Gone Wrong with Democracy."

Good news often gets engulfed by bad news, and this is a good news story about democracy working right.

Massive Scale

Starting on April 7, the world's largest democracy will elect its 16th Parliament. One hundred million new voters have registered to vote with the overall roll now exceeding 814 million, larger than the entire population of Europe and more than five times the 146 million Americans who registered to vote in 2012 in the world's second largest democracy. All polling uses battery-powered electronic voting machines, designed and built in India. In fact, countries such as Kenya, Namibia and Nepal have used these machines in their own elections.

The very scale of the exercise is mind-boggling. India speaks over 24 distinct languages and about 25 percent of the electorate is still illiterate. There are almost one million polling locations and 11 million government workers will staff them. Virtually every voter has a photographic identity card; there is no controversy about voter ID in India. Polling is spread over nine separate dates ranging from April 7 to May 12. All results will be an announced on May 16. Since India has a parliamentary system its President is a ceremonial figure while executive power rests with the Prime Minister who is chosen by parliament rather than by direct election.

A Test of Three

The 2014 elections will have the most impact since India liberalized its economy in 1991. Eighty-two-year-old incumbent Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, has held the job for 10 years and does not intend to continue. His party, the Indian National Congress (INC), is widely expected to suffer serious setbacks next month. Colossal corruption scandals around the issuance of telecom licenses, the administration of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and sale of Agusta Westland helicopters have rocked the government to its core. The party is expected to propose Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi clan as its candidate for Prime Minister, but no formal announcement on this is required.

A new factor on the Indian political scene is the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP or the Common Man's Party). Led by Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur alumnus Arvind Kejriwal, the party had a roaring debut in a provincial election in December last year, winning 28 out of 70 seats. (Full disclosure: I was president of the Alumni Association of the Indian Institutes of Technology in 2011 when the association conferred a global award upon him in New York.)

Most eyes are upon 63-year-old Narendra Modi (NaMo to his supporters) of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP or Indian People's Party). Modi has led the western state of Gujarat to economic success since 2001. Modi is the darling of India's corporate lobby; I was a speaker at the Vibrant Gujarat event in 2013 and saw first-hand how Stanford-educated Mukesh Ambani, India's richest man, committed to bringing $20 billion in new investment to Gujarat. Harvard alumnus Anand Mahindra, CEO of India's largest SUV maker predicted brashly, "We will soon have a Gujarat model of growth in China." But until recently Modi was controversial within his own party. In 2005, the United States denied him a visa, prompted by his possible action or inaction in a series of violent incidents in 2002.

The Washington D.C.-based Pew Research Center conducted a face-to-face survey of 2,464 Indian recently and concluded that the BJP has a three to one margin over the INC, 63 percent to 19 percent.

Coalition Coalesce

However, none of these parties is likely to win a straight majority of 272 parliamentary seats in the forthcoming elections. India has been governed by coalitions which include strong regional parties and dozens of tiny splinter groups.

Prime Minister's Manmohan Singh's Indian National Congress currently holds only 206 parliamentary seats, but leads the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Coalition, which includes a number of small parties, with less than 10 seats each. It is supported from the outside by two parties from India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh: the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, with 22 and 21 members of Parliament respectively. Narendra Modi's BJP leads the National Democratic Alliance and includes the fundamentalist Shiv Sena which is strong in Maharashtra state, the Telugu Desam based in Andhra Pradesh and the Shiromani Akali Dal of Punjab.

The states of West Bengal and Kerala have historically had strong Communist Parties, such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist), led by Prakash Karat. Karat has renewed calls for a "third front" alternative to the two leading coalition alliances but is unclear if this has any traction in 2014.

Madison Avenue impact

Compared to the United States, the election campaign in India is mercifully short. Elections were announced in early March and polling begins in April. But like the United States, professional fundraising is starting to play a role. AAP's Arvind Kejriwal has attended fundraising dinners at INR10,000 (less than $200) per plate in Bangalore and Nagpur raising a few hundred thousand dollars per event. Professional advertising has become important as well; the INC has retained Dentsu and J Walter Thompson for a $100 million creative and media campaign and Genesis Burson- Marsteller for public relations. In 2004, the BJP ran a spiffy campaign with the theme "India Shining" but lost the elections. This year, the party is reported to be using Madison Media for media planning and buying, Soho Square, a unit of WPP, and perhaps some prominent executives from McCann Worldwide and Oglivy and Mather South Asia.

The next few weeks promise to be exciting as the campaigns are in full swing. Stay tuned for more.