India’s general election, the world’s biggest democratic exercise, kicks off on April 7th. Voting will take place, across 35 states and territories, until May 12th. The country has a Westminster-style system: it is divided into 543 roughly equal constituencies (typically with some 1.5m voters), each sending a single MP to parliament. The whole electorate is a whopping 815m people, the populations of America and the EU combined. A decade of rising incomes, on the back of a growth spurt, has improved many lives. Yet opinion polls show that voters everywhere are grumpy. One released this week by the Pew Research Centre found 70% dissatisfied with India’s prospects and more than eight out of ten bitterly gloomy about economic matters. “Everything is a problem for the Indian voter,” concludes Bruce Stokes of Pew.
Politics is messy: hefty regional parties claim roughly half the total vote and run many state governments. At the national level two broad groupings exist, to which others lend support. One is led by secular Congress, which has a national presence and has ruled for a decade (and 54 of the past 67 years). The other is fronted by the right-leaning, Hindu-dominated Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This, the main opposition, draws most of its strength from the mostly Hindi-speaking north and west.
The village of Kamalpur, some 70km from central Delhi, shows the pre-election mood as well as any. It boasts a tarmac road, a row of tiny barber shops and fields of young green wheat. This used to be a poor, rural spot, but no longer. Half-built concrete towers line an improved highway as the city marches into western Uttar Pradesh (UP). Many locals are giving up farming to sell milk or flowers to the city, or hire out generators. Several toil in textile factories in Noida, the nearest big town.
These workers, in turn, are changing the lives of those left behind. Before 2004, says a teacher, few families sent children to school, least of all daughters. “Now you cannot earn from farming, so everyone wants to get educated and find jobs in factories near Delhi,” he says. The greatest concern is jobs, say the men beside him.
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