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People lining up to cast their votes during the third phase of the Indian election in Guwahati, Assam, on Tuesday. -EPA

THE Kumbh Mela religious gathering is described as one of the biggest gathering of people at any one place and occurs usually every 12-years.

The Hindu pilgrimage of faith taking place in India involves millions.

Yet there is also another gathering which takes place at regular intervals, usually every five years in the South Asian nation: the general election.

It is the biggest show by any standards globally in a nation which prides itself as being the world’s biggest democracy.

This year the general election kicked off on April 11 and ends on May 19. It will be held under seven phases in a nation of 29 states and seven union territories.

The polls will see 900 million voters eligible to cast their votes from a population of 1.3 billion in a country that is a federal republic parliamentary.

At stake is 543 seats in the 545 strong lower house of Parliament.

Two seats in the lower house are reserved for appointments from the Anglo-Indian community.

The polls, the 17th to be held since it gained independence in 1947, is based on the single-member constituencies using first-past-the-post voting system.

Legislative assembly elections are simultaneously being held in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha and Sikkim with the general election.

All eyes are, however, on the national polls, which are keenly watched, as to whether the Bhartiya Janata Party-led (BJP) National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would be able to replicate its stunning 2014 polls success and stave off the Indian National Congress-led (INC) United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which is looking at reviving its fortunes.

Key issues in the polls, include India’s burgeoning economy, jobs and unemployment.

With a gross domestic product growth rate above 7 per cent, India remains the world’s fastest-growing country, economic-wise.

According to The Times of India, the major economic achievements of the incumbent NDA government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi includes an inflation rate less of than 4 per cent, the goods and services tax reform and the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code,

The opposition’s election campaign sought to highlight the de-monetisation exercise and GST law which had affected small businesses, farmers and the informal employment sector.

Unemployment is also becoming a key issue in the polls. The Business Standard revealed that the nation’s unemployment rate was 6.1 per cent, the highest since 1972-73.

Opinion polls have also cited unemployment as being one of the main issues likely to dominate the polls.

National and local issues including agriculture and farmers issues in the rural areas of India as well as security issues are also expected dominate the polls.

The BJP is hoping that key economic measures and development progress it had made in the last five years will see it garner another five years at the centre as the federal level is called.

The 2014 polls was the first to be led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, of which the BJP secured a landslide victory securing an absolute majority with 282 seats out of 543 seats stake. The BJP alone won 282 of the 428 seats it contested.

It was the first time since 1984 a party had won an absolute majority in a general election. The BJP also picked up a third of the popular vote.

Analysts believe the election would largely be a referendum on the former Gujarat chief minister.

INC, which has given India six prime ministers, is hoping to make a comeback in the polls.

In 2014, INC, led by Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, saw its worst-ever performance, when it won only 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, down from the 206 seats it held previously. Its popularity dipped to an all-time low and saw it pick up less than 20 per cent of votes.

However, the 133-year-old grand old party late last year made a comeback by capturing the state assemblies of Chattisgarh, Madya Pradesh, Rajasthan from BJP. It also retained the Karnataka state assembly in coalition with Janata Dal (Secular) in the state polls.

INC is hoping that the anti-incumbency momentum flexed by voters against BJP would be continued in the national polls.

From BJP securing a comfortable majority to a slim majority and a possible hung parliament, opinion polls had a field day predicting the outcome of the polls.

A January 2018 opinion poll conducted by India Today showed that BJP could secure a 37-seat majority.

Between December last year and March, opinion polls provided a hung Parliament.

Recent opinion polls, however, showed BJP gaining ground among voters, as the Times Now-VMR opinion poll predicting the saffron party winning by seven seats.

Whether Gandhi will be the seventh prime minister to emerge from the centre-left Congress or whether Modi the 14th prime minister of India is able to defend the right-wing to centre party’s majority in the Lok Sabha and retain his prime ministership, results will only be known on May 23.

The writer is NST news editor.

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