National elections in India are like none other anywhere, at least in countries that pride themselves as democracies. They are long-drawn, they are raucous, they are expensive, they are corrupt, and their results are known not at the end of the polling day but several days later. In a country of 1.3 billion people that has 814 million registered voters, polling takes place in many phases over many days. Media speculate loudly about who will get chosen out of thousands of candidates for the parliament's 543 seats. But no one really knows -- opinion surveys notwithstanding -- the results until the day the computers churn them out.
That day is Friday, May 16. By around noon or so, we will know the composition of the new parliament. We will know which party -- or which grouping -- will get to form the new government. We will most likely also get to know the identity of India's new prime minister, its 16th since Independence in 1947. The general assumption is that the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party will get the largest number of parliamentary seats, and that its leader, Narendra Modi, currently chief minister of Gujarat state, will be nominated to become prime minister. Mr. Modi is already reported to be consulting with party colleagues about assembling a cabinet.
While there is plenty of guessing, no one really knows who will get the choice portfolios of finance, foreign affairs, home and defense. Indeed, no one really knows just how many ministers will be named; the outgoing government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has 76 senior and junior ministers, or almost an eighth the number of parliamentarians. It was, for the most part, an unproductive government; trimming it by 90 percent would have helped the national exchequer in a country that has severe budgetary deficits, but several regional groups had to be placated -- the concept of political patronage doesn't necessarily include concern for the depletion of the treasury, budgets be damned.
One hopes that India's new prime minister is fiscally more prudent. One even dares to hope that instead of only drawing from his own party or political alliance, he reaches out to members of the opposition -- or perhaps even outside of politics, as the President of the United States does from time to time in forming his cabinet. One hopes that men and women of genuine expertise and professional experience in their fields are brought in to serve as cabinet ministers.
Now that would be truly revolutionary in tradition-bound India. This is an opportunity that Prime Minister Narendra Modi -- or whoever succeeds Manmohan Singh -- should not miss.