The world’s largest election, explainedMilan Vaishnav and Jamie Hintson

Indians will vote in nationwide general elections this spring.

  • There are approximately 879 million eligible voters. More than two-thirds of voters cast their ballots in the 2014 general elections.
  • In 2014, 8,251 candidates represented 464 parties.
  • India has the world’s second-most expensive elections, after the United States.
  • In 2014, parties and candidates spent more than $5 billion.

At Stake: The Lok Sabha

The 2019 general elections decide who sits in India’s lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha or House of the People.

The winning party or coalition will nominate one of its members to be prime minister. The prime minister will select ministers to serve in the cabinet.

The Lok Sabha is the more powerful of the two houses that make up India’s parliament.

Lok Sabha or House of the People
  • Holds government accountable, because it can introduce and pass no confidence motions
  • In charge of money: all tax, borrowing, and spending bills must be introduced there
  • More seats than the upper house, so has more power in legislative negotiations

Mind-Boggling Logistics

India’s electoral rules say there must be a polling place within 2 kilometers of every habitation.

Some of India’s 11 million election workers must trek across glaciers, deserts, and jungles and travel over an ocean to make sure every eligible Indian can vote.

The sole inhabitant of the remote Gir National Forest in Gujarat, home to Asiatic lions, has his own polling station—complete with his own electronic voting machine, because there are no paper ballots.

Election officials transport voting machines by elephant in Assam.
An election official carries a voting machine across a makeshift bridge in Jammu and Kashmir.
Every vote is cast electronically, via 1.72 million machines.


Making sure that nearly 900 million people can vote securely is difficult to do in a single day.

So the general elections take place over several weeks.

There is no single date when everyone votes. Instead, the country votes in sequential phases. This year’s campaign will run from March to May 2019.

Once election dates are set, the Model Code of Conduct kicks in to discourage hate speech, vote-buying, and the announcement of new government schemes.

  1. Week 1

    Election Commission of India announces election dates

  2. Week 2

    Election Commission of India formally notifies the elections

  3. Week 3

    Nominations for candidacy are accepted

  4. Week 4

    Official campaigning kicks off

  5. Week 6

    Polling starts for the first phase. Process repeats on a staggered basis for subsequent phases

  6. Week 10

    Votes counted. The results are usually announced within hours

Key Players

Preelection surveys suggest that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will emerge as the single largest party.

But it is projected to fall short of a clear majority.

Its main national rival, Rahul Gandhi’s Indian National Congress (INC), needs to recover from its worst election performance in 2014, when it won just 44 seats.

In 2014, roughly half of all Indians voted for a party other than the BJP or Congress.

Most other parties are regional or caste-based, campaigning in a single state or region. Yet even small parties can be pivotal, if no party secures a majority and must seek coalition allies.

Many Parties, Diverse Symbols

Each party is represented by an easy-to-identify symbol, such as the Community Party of India (Marxist)’s hammer, sickle, and star. Today there are 35 political parties represented in parliament.

Mapping India’s Elections
State By State

India has 29 states and 7 union territories.

Mapping India’s Elections
State By State

India has 29 states and 7 union territories.

Seats are divided in proportion to each state’s population*: more people means more seats.

If it were a country, the largest state, Uttar Pradesh, would be the world’s sixth-most populous nation.

*Population figures are from the 2011 Census.

Mapping India’s Elections
State By State

These are the major battleground states.

Uttar Pradesh
80 Seats
142.9m Electorate Size*
With over 200 million people, Uttar Pradesh is the biggest prize. Two rival regional parties—the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP)—have formed a coalition to challenge the BJP.
48 Seats
85m Electorate Size*
The state will be a battle between two rival coalitions, each led by a national party. In 2014, the BJP and its ally, the Shiv Sena, routed the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance.
Tamil Nadu
39 Seats
58.7m Electorate Size*
The state’s politics are largely dominated by two rival Tamil parties, who have each struck arrangements with the two national parties. On their own, the national parties are bit players here.
21 Seats
31.2m Electorate Size*
The state has long been dominated by a regional party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). But the BJP has invested heavily in the state, believing victories here will help offset losses in north and west India.

*Data on electorate size is from the Election Commission of India.

Mapping India’s Elections
State By State

Roughly one-quarter of seats are reserved for members from one of two disadvantaged communities:

Scheduled Castes, also known as Dalits—who occupy the lowest rung of the Hindu social order.

Scheduled Tribes, India’s tribal population who primarily live in rural, remote regions.

After the Results

The president will ask the leading party to form a government.

If no single party wins an absolute majority, leading parties will try to form a coalition with smaller parties.

Some alliances are established before the election. Others are negotiated after the results, and can even shift during a government’s term.

There are 543 directly elected members of parliament (MPs). The president nominates two additional MPs from the Anglo-Indian community.

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