New Delhi, March 2 : India, the world's largest democracy with 714 million voters, will pick a new government over five phases between April 16 and May 13, and the result will be declared May 16, it was announced Monday.
In what is often billed as a grand festival of democracy, six million civil officials as well as police and paramilitary personnel will oversee the conduct of the election, the 15th to the 545-seat Lok Sabha since India became independent in 1947.
Making the much awaited announcement, Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami said that 124 Lok Sabha constituencies would go to the polls April 16, followed by 141 on April 23, 107 on April 30, 85 on May 7 and 86 constituencies on the final day on May 13.
The votes will be counted across the country May 16.
Gopalaswami said elections to the Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Sikkim assemblies would also take place simultaneously. State by-elections would also be held in Mizoram, Jharkhand and Karnataka (one seat each) and Nagaland (four seats).
The Lok Sabha election, the biggest such exercise in the world, will cost a whopping Rs.10,000 crore (Rs.100 billion), said a study by Centre for Media Studies.
Political parties hailed the announcement of the election, which will take place exactly five years after voters delivered a verdict in April-May 2004 that unseated the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and brought into power a Congress-led coalition.
"We have confidence that on May 16 when the counting would be done, the country would get a new government under the leadership of L.K. Advani," asserted BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad, confident that the vote end five years of Congress-led rule.
Congress spokesperson Jayanti Natarajan echoed him: "We welcome it. I am sure the elections will be concluded in a free and fair manner."
More than four million civil officials and 2.1 security personnel would be on duty in 828,800 polling stations, an increase of 20 percent over 2004, to ensure free and fair elections.
There will be one polling station in Gujarat for just one voter.
The strength of the Indian electorate, more than the combined population of Russia and the US, has gone up by 43 million in 2004 to 714 million now, Gopalaswami said.
A total of 1.36 million electronic voting machines would be used. The new Lok Sabha has to be constituted before June 2.
Troubled Jammu and Kashmir as well as Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, would see polling spread over five phases while Bihar would have four rounds of balloting.
Maharashtra and West Bengal would undergo polling over three phases. Eight states - Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Orissa and Punjab - would witness voting over two phases. Fifteen states would end the exercise within a day.
Goapalaswami, set to retire April 20, hit out at the use of money power by politicians.
"We have taken serious note of illegal use of money power. The polling officers have been told to strictly monitor the expenditure (by candidates)," he said.
This would be the first general election after the delimitation of the Lok Sabha constituencies. With this, there are 84 seats reserved for the Scheduled Castes (79 in 2004) and 47 for Scheduled Tribes (41 in 2004).
There are 412 general category seats.
He said electoral rolls had been updated throughout the country and photo electoral rolls would be used in 522 of the 543 constituencies where polling would take place. In a house of 545, the president appoints two members of the Anglo-Indian community.
Monday's announcement comes a day after President Pratibha Patil rejected Gopalaswami's controversial suggestion to sack Election Commissioner Navin Chawla from the poll panel on grounds that he was biased. Chawla will take over from Gopalaswami when he retires.
It also accompanied discussions over possible tie-ups underway between political parties, all of which know that none of them can bag a majority on their own and that only a coalition is the key to success.