Election Commission announces seven-phase Lok Sabha election starting April 19

The announcement comes amidst a heated debate over electoral bonds, with opposition accusing Modi government of undermining democratic processes.

Published : Mar 16, 2024 18:20 IST - 5 MINS READ

Officials display electronic voting machines at an awareness drive ahead of the Lok Sabha election in Jorhat, Assam. A file photo.

Officials display electronic voting machines at an awareness drive ahead of the Lok Sabha election in Jorhat, Assam. A file photo. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

India’s 97 crore registered electorate will vote in seven phases between April 19 and June 1 to elect the 18th Lok Sabha, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has announced. The counting of votes will take place on June 4.

As India goes to the hustings amid a controversy surrounding electoral bonds, opposition parties have stepped up their attack on the government, which they accused of using disproportionate capital to subvert democratic processes. Some experts have said that the latest row allows the INDIA bloc parties to re-energise their campaign against the incumbent BJP government at a time when most pollsters are predicting that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will come back easily to power for a third consecutive term.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi described the electoral bonds as an “international-level extortion racket” that the Modi government is piloting for “toppling governments led by opposition parties, and for breaking political parties”.

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A widespread outcry to safeguard democratic institutions and norms is at the core of the opposition’s campaign for the upcoming election, which it has coupled with socio-economic exhortations revolving around the issues of unemployment, a caste census aimed at wooing the OBCs, and inflation.

While responding to mediapersons’ questions, the Election Commissioners have refuted allegations of partisan conduct. Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar, while addressing apprehensions that the election body was reluctant to act against hate speeches made by Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, said the body was committed to ensuring a level-playing field for all political parties.

Kumar reiterated that even if a “star campaigner” makes a hateful comment, he or she would be acted on. “Political parties must ensure responsible social media behaviour,” he stressed while adding that those who create fake news will be dealt with severely. On the allegations around tampering of electronic voting machines, Kumar said that the Indian courts have already rejected such theories.

High stakes

According to the ECI, “The first phase [of polling] will be held on April 19, the second phase on April 26, the third phase on May 7, the fourth phase on May 13, the fifth phase on May 20, the sixth phase on May 25, and the seventh phase on June 1.” Along with the general election for 543 parliamentary constituencies, there will be Assembly elections in four States: Andhra Pradesh (May 13), Arunachal Pradesh (April 19), Sikkim (April 19), and Odisha (May 13 and 20).

Byelections for 26 Assembly seats will also be held along with the Lok Sabha election. Kumar said that due to the disproportionate security burden warranted for holding any elections in Jammu and Kashmir, his team decided against holding simultaneous Assembly elections in the Union Territory.

Several opinion polls have shown Modi is up for a thumping victory, while once again sweeping the northern States. News18’s opinion poll released on March 14, for example, said that the BJP is expected to win more than 75 of the 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh. According to the opinion poll, 43 per cent of respondents across India were “very satisfied” with Modi’s second term in office. However, critics point to the BJP’s recent scrambling for alliances, including in Uttar Pradesh where it wooed even a small party like the Rashtriya Lok Dal to join its fold, to underscore the point that sweeping the north Indian States like in 2019 was not going to be a cakewalk for the party.

The BJP’s alliance rush may be a fallout of the Congress’ hard-hitting campaign tailored to court the OBC voters by promising to look at ways to increase their reservation in jobs and education. The BJP is apprehensive that any fragmentation of the OBC votes might erode its rainbow Hindu consolidation that handed it 282 seats in the 2014 general election and 303 seats in 2019.

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Rahul Gandhi and his INDIA partners, especially Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, have been building a case for a caste census, which will be the first step towards removing the upper ceiling on reservation. Farmers’ issues and jobs also top the opposition’s agenda. The Congress has promised a constitutional amendment to raise the 50 per cent cap on reservation for the SCs, STs, and OBCs. To ride the wave of discontent over unemployment, the party has assured, if elected to power, a national minimum wage of Rs.400 per day, which would also be the minimum for all MGNREGA workers nationally, and an employment guarantee act for urban areas. The Congress has named these motley initiatives as “shramik nyay” and “hissedari nyay”.

The BJP, on the other hand, is intensively marketing its economic welfarism, and its leaders went on a project-inauguration overdrive before the model code of conduct came into effect today (March 16). From January 1, till March 16, Prime Minister Modi made a record of sorts by laying the foundation stones of infrastructure projects worth Rs.11 lakh crore. His Cabinet ministers have also been touring the country inaugurating projects. In Gujarat on March 12, Modi said, “This 10 years’ work is just a trailer. I have a long way to go,” while flagging off 10 new Vande Bharat trains and inaugurating a slew of other projects worth Rs 1.06 lakh crore in the State.

However, opinion is divided on whether Modi’s incentives’ blitzkrieg, which has endeared him to a large section of subaltern voters for a decade now, can be a tranquilliser for young voters who are agitated over the lack of jobs and policy overhauls such as the controversial soldier-recruiting scheme, Agniveer. The opposition hopes to cash on that anger, even as pollsters build an unchallenged environment for the BJP.

The CEC has appealed to all voters to dutifully cast their franchise, describing the Indian general election as “the biggest festival of democracy anywhere in the world”. The Election Commission has announced “vote-from-home” facilities for citizens above 85 years old and persons with disabilities for the Lok Sabha election. Transport facilities will be arranged for persons with disabilities, and special arrangements for the elderly will be made. The Saksham app will provide special facilities at polling stations.

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