New Delhi: The wait is finally over. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has announced the dates of general elections 2019, the world's largest democratic exercise. The elections will be held in eight phases, starting from April 11th, to ensure security across polling stations.
Millions of voters
As many as 89.88 crore (898.8 million) electors, including 1.59 crore new voters aged 18-19 years, are registered to vote in the 2019 general election. However, this number is likely to go up since additions to the electoral rolls can be made till the last day of filing of nominations.
More than 83 crore Indians were eligible to vote in the last general election in 2014, more than three times the voting-age population of the United States in 2017. But only about 55.3 crore (553 million) Indians, or 66.44 per cent of all eligible voters, came out to vote five years ago. There were 8,251 candidates from more than 460 political parties. This included 668 women candidates, in which only 62 were elected to the lower house of the parliament, the Lok Sabha.
The fight is for 543 of the 545 seats in 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 the Indian president.
On average, each constituency had 15 candidates during the 2014 election, according to ECI data, with the highest number of hopefuls for one seat recorded at 42.
The process is conducted by the ECI, an autonomous constitutional authority, with a staff of more than 300 full-time officials at its headquarters in New Delhi.
By road, boat and elephant
In 2014, the ECI set up 9,27,553 polling stations across the country, with each location serving about 900 voters on average. No voter should be more than 2 km away from a polling station, as per ECI guidelines.
For such a mammoth exercise, nearly 50 lakh (5 million) government officials and security forces are deployed, travelling by foot, road, special train, helicopter, boat and sometimes elephant.
These locations are often in remote areas with few facilities. More than 80,000 stations surveyed by the ECI lacked mobile connectivity, and nearly 20,000 were located in forest or semi-forest areas, according to data released last year.
In the 2009 general election, the ECI set up a polling station in the Gir forest of Gujarat, home to Asiatic lions, just for one voter!
In pictures: States And Union Territories
The voting takes place in multiple phases, typically taking more than a month to allow officials and security forces to re-deploy, and the counting for all 543 constituencies is done in a single day.
The cost of the entire process in 2014 was Rs 3,870 crore ($552 million), according to ECI estimates.
Although admired for its ability to conduct the polls with few hitches, the ECI has come under pressure from opposition parties in recent months for the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs). In 2014, 18 lakh of these machines were used to conduct the elections.
Opposition groups allege that EVMs - which were first introduced in 1982 - can be tampered with, and want the ECI to extensively use the Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) system to cross-check votes.
VVPAT is 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.
In February, ECI officials met national and regional parties, but haven't yet announced how widely VVPAT verification will be used this time round.