India Starts World’s Biggest-Ever Election With Modi in Lead

The biggest election in world history started today in the Himalayan foothills of northeastern India, with Narendra Modi’s opposition party poised to win the most seats as it looks to regain power after a decade.

About 815 million voters, roughly the populations of the U.S. and European Union combined, are eligible to cast ballots in nine rounds of voting over the next five weeks to pick 543 lawmakers. Results will be known on May 16 in the nation of 1.2 billion people, where some two-thirds live on about $2 per day.

“People are restless for growth and development,” said Jai Mrug, an independent political analyst in Mumbai who conducts opinion polling. “India’s image, progress and economy have been hampered due to a lack of decision making.”

India’s stocks and currency have rallied in recent weeks on the prospect that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party will form a stable coalition and revive Asia’s third-biggest economy. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress party has seen its popularity fall as graft cases, Asia’s fastest inflation and subdued economic growth erode support.

Global funds pumped $11 billion into Indian debt and equities this year, on optimism the new government will revive growth that slowed to a decade-low in the fiscal year ended March 31, 2013. The rupee gained 3.2 percent last quarter, its best performance since 2012, and the S&P BSE Sensex index of shares rose to a record on April 2. Bond risk for India has fallen in 2014.

‘Best Interest’

“What we can hope for is that the growth and inflation challenges facing whichever government comes to power will spur policy makers to make the changes needed to improve the economy,” economists at HSBC Holdings Plc, led by Leif Eskesen in Singapore, wrote in a April 2 research report. “That would, after all, be in the best interest of the people.”

The election will be the most expensive in Indian history, with the government, political parties and candidates spending 300 billion rupees ($5 billion), according to estimates from the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies. While the election commission caps spending for each candidate at 7 million rupees per constituency, often much more is spent.

Voting began today in the northeastern states of Assam and Tripura, where parties will contest six parliamentary constituencies that account for less than one percent of the population. It will conclude on May 12 with 41 seats, including Varanasi, one of two constituencies that Modi will contest.

Two Voters

Gathering votes in the world’s seventh-biggest land mass isn’t easy. Election officials must traverse forests, deserts, glaciers and seas to meet a requirement that polling stations be set up within two kilometers (1.2 miles) of every voter.

In Tripura, a state bordering Bangladesh, 10,000 security personnel will guard 1,605 polling stations, said Ashutosh Jindal, the state’s chief electoral officer.

“In spite of some constraints on getting vehicles, telecom connectivity and concerns for security, we are putting all efforts to ensure free, fair and peaceful elections,” said Jindal. “It’s a massive exercise.”

Some of the biggest challenges will be in Arunachal Pradesh, a northeastern state bordering China that will vote two days from now. Porters must carry electronic equipment to a mountainous village to set up a polling station for only two voters, said Genom Tekseng, an official in the state’s election office. Seven government employees will oversee the process.

Polling Stations

Helicopters will be used to transport medicines, food, wireless communications, voting machines and election staff to certain areas with rugged terrain, Tekseng said. The materials are then taken by foot to polling stations in remote areas.

In total, the Election Commission of India is setting up 919,000 polling stations and will use 3.6 million electronic voting machines. That’s up from 800,000 polling stations and 2 million voting machines in the 2009 election.

Of the 815 million registered voters, 23 million are aged between 18 and 19 years, constituting 2.8 percent of the national electorate. Since 2009, about 100 million new voters have been added to electoral rolls.

Modi, 63, is promoting his image as a magnet for investment and a record of stronger-than-average growth in the state of Gujarat he’s ruled since 2001. Congress party leaders say he’s an autocrat who failed to control deadly anti-Muslim rioting in Gujarat in 2002. He’s denied wrongdoing.

Modi Lead

Rahul Gandhi, 43, is leading the Congress campaign with a message that highlights the government’s record of spending on programs ranging from cheap food to guaranteed work in rural areas. The party has promised poorer voters rights to health care and housing in its manifesto, while pledging to restore growth in Asia’s third-biggest economy to more than 8 percent within three years.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its coalition partners are forecast as many as 246 seats in the lower house of parliament, shy of the 272 needed for a majority, according to an opinion poll released on April 4 by CNN-IBN and The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Congress and its allies would get as many as 123 seats, the poll said. CNN-IBN didn’t give a margin of error or say how many people it surveyed.

“The size of victory for Modi is very important” said U.R. Bhat, managing director of the India unit of U.K.-based Dalton Strategic Partnership LLP, which manages $2 billion globally. “If he doesn’t have to depend upon some very demanding regional parties, then the responsibility will be his alone to meet people’s expectations for economic growth and development.”