Hasan Minhaj on the Indian elections in May

Given the massive size of the country and the voting pool, Indian elections present formidable logistical challenges.

General elections in India will begin on April 11, officials announced on Sunday, with some 900 million voters eligible to cast ballots to fill parliamentary seats and choose the next prime minister in the world’s largest democracy.

The chief election commissioner, Sunil Arora, said voting would be held in seven stages, staggered across the country, before polls closed on May 19. Ballot counting will begin on May 23 and is expected to be completed in a day.

Got that? Voting results are available the very next day whereas in the US some results take months.

But it is not only the size of the electorate that is a problem. The lack of literacy of a significant number and the remoteness of many locations require extraordinary measures to enable people to vote, as was the case in the last election in 2014. As a result, 550 million or 66.4% of the voters cast ballots, a higher percentage than in the US.

Nearly 1 million polling stations will be set up — all with electronic voting machines. Eleven million poll officials and security force members will be deployed. For the first time voters will have the option to cast their ballot for “none of the above.”

But India’s election is like nothing else nowhere else. Former Chief Election Commissioner Quraishi authored An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election and he says no effort is spared to reach the hundreds of millions with ballots, even if it takes elephants, camels, boats, planes or trains.

“You name it, and that is the transport we’re using. And there are some places where none of these transports will go, then polling teams have to walk.”

He says not even the lone priest living in a lion-infested forest will be left without a voting booth.

Compare that approach with that in the US where voting is so much easier but great efforts are made to suppress the votes of many, especially those belonging to disadvantaged groups.

In his latest show, Minhaj discussed the upcoming Indian elections. The options for voters are not that great. On the one hand we have the ruling BJP party and its leader prime minister Narendra Modi who is a Hindu nationalist affiliated with right wing groups like the RSS that have encouraged people to think of India not as the diverse secular nation the its founders envisaged and incorporated in its constitution but as a Hindu state in which everyone else has second-class status.

Modi has strong and disturbing similarities to Trump in his naked appeal to chauvinism and his hostility to Muslims and using the tensions with Pakistan over the Kashmir question to whip up jingoistic support. Along with Trump, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, he forms a quartet of highly authoritarian, chauvinistic, and bigoted leaders of large countries. Trump also shares with Bolsonaro a culture of family corruption and sleaze that surrounds each of them. No wonder the two seem to get on so well. They have much to talk about.

On the other hand, Modi’s main rival party is the Congress party that is secular in its outlook but has been badly stained with the corruption that seems endemic to Indian politics.

Apart from the politics, Minhaj had a funny opening segment where he tells various older people of Indian origin about his plans to discuss the Indian eletions and they are horrified, warning him that people will viciously attack him and that even if his family is of Indian ethnicity, the fact that he is a Muslim will mean that he is automatically considered a fifth columnist secretly working for arch-rival Pakistan.

He also showed how Modi likes to hug people, which surprised me because, at least in Sri Lanka, politicians do not hug people or shake hands or otherwise touch. When they greet someone, they place their palms together in front of their face with fingers pointing upward, and nod or slightly bow. I would have expected Indian politicians to do something similar.


  1. Kevin Dugan says

    I watched this episode last night and enjoyed the change of perspective. I love the idea of a “none of the above” option, especially if it meant those candidates could never run for that position again.
    I see the perception of corruption as a destabilizing influence on trust and participation in the political system. Establishment parties seem unable to police themselves effectively and thereby shoot themselves in the foot. Do you happen to know: Are political campaigns in India publicly or privately financed? Is there more concern with moral vs monetary/influence corruption in India than in the US?

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … not even the lone priest living in a lion-infested forest will be left without a voting booth.

    For some reason, I doubt the same could truthfully be said of an imam in the woods -- or Muslim-populated areas in general.

  3. Ravi Venkataraman says

    @#3. The Election Commission is secular, and would do the same for anyone, irrespective of their religion. If you think the Election Commission would ignore non majority faiths, you have no idea about India. we have the third largest Muslim population in the world (after Indonesia, and slightly behind Pakistan).

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