Your guide to how India’s seemingly endless election will actually end

Dawn of a new government.
Dawn of a new government.
Image: AP Photo
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Not only is the biggest election on the planet, but it’s starting to feel like the longest. India’s general election process ran through nine phases across 36 days and will culminate on May 16. That’s when the political verdict of 815 million eligible voters (a record two-thirds actually headed to the polls) will be known. Quartz has rounded up what you need to know to understand what is happening over the next few days:

When will we know who won?

Depending on how they voted, the country might get to know its new prime minister, government, and political direction the same day—on Friday, May 16. Irrespective, Indians will witness a couple of weeks of back-chamber parleys, highly photographed car rides in the backdrop of the Capital’s majestic sandstone buildings, hurried reference to procedure and protocol, and much ceremony and swearing in.

Counting begins early on the 16th. Because it is a matter of aggregating vote counts stored in electronic memory, the victor is usually known before noon (that would be 2:30 a.m. in New York and 7:30 a.m. in London). In the event of a hung verdict, which means no party or formation gets the simple majority figure of 272 seats out of a total 543, it will take a few days of negotiations for the picture to become clear.

How will we know who won?

The Election Commission has a dedicated website for results. Most Indians will find out through television and radio stations, and a small but growing section, from their social media feeds.

What is the likelihood of not knowing who won?

Many exit polls predicted earlier this week that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led group, the National Democratic Alliance (all of India’s coalitions are unimaginatively named), will get enough seats—272—to form the government. This group has declared that if it wins, the prime minister would be BJP’s Narendra Modi. The rival United Progressive Alliance (the ruling coalition government) has said it would make a decision about its prime minister candidate after the results are known.

By the evening of the 16th, if it is clear that the incumbent UPA has not got a majority, the government will resign. By convention, the president will ask it to stay on as a “caretaker government” till the new one is formed.

These parties. Who are they?

The Bharatiya Janata Party is a right-wing Hindu nationalist party. Its National Democratic Alliance has 27 parties from across the country. Most of them have joined hands with the BJP this year, sensing a swing in the party’s political fortunes.

The United Progressive Alliance’s main party is the Indian National Congress Party, the party of India’s independence. It is considered a dynasty in India because leadership has been handed down from one member of the Nehru-Gandhi (the Gandhis in this family are unrelated to Mohandas Gandhi, the inspirational leader of India’s freedom movement) family for most of India’s 67-year history.

So what if no one snags 272 votes?

On the evening of the counting day or latest by the next morning, the Election Commission, having successfully conducted the largest election in human history, will notify the list of winners in all 543 of the country’s parliamentary seats.

The president, who is mostly vested with ceremonial powers, suddenly matters. He will then invite the leader of the party or group that is in a position to form the government, to do so. If no one is in such a position, the president holds talks with leaders of various parties for a solution. Anyone is free to approach the president with proof of support from 272 elected members of Parliament. In the event of a fractured verdict, the president can, at his discretion, invite a party with the largest number of seats, to form the government. This has not always worked.

Once a party or a group accepts the invitation, they finalize the prime minister and cabinet. In theory, the PM is regarded as “first among equals” in his cabinet—the final word on policy and government decisions. In practice, the power equation depends entirely on the political stature enjoyed by the PM and the strength of ties between the ruling party and its coalition allies. Much hardnosed negotiation will precede allocation of cabinet and minister positions.

In the event of a clear verdict, usually the prime minister, her cabinet and council of ministers are sworn in within a week of counting day.

How much did these elections cost?

The Indian government spent 63 rupees (a little over $1) per voter.

What about the rest of the government?

After the prime minister and a cabinet are sworn in, the process of the constitution of the house begins. The government informs the president about when it wishes to convene the first session of the 16th Lok Sabha. Before the new session begins, 543 new representatives of India’s people will descend on Delhi, many of them first-time parliamentarians. The Lok Sabha secretariat will set up a help desk for them (usually in room no 62 in the Parliament building), much like a university welcoming a new class, to assist with stay, travel, and with a new mobile phone number from state-run MTNL. There will also be guideposts at the airport and the city’s railway stations.

On the first day on the new house, the members, all of whom have braved arduous summer campaigning and tough electoral battles to emerge victorious, will sing the national anthem and observe a minute of silence, a convention followed since the first Lok Sabha in 1952.

Then the protem speaker (with the help of a panel of three other members also chosen based on seniority) will administer an oath to all the other members of Lok Sabha. This takes two days. Family members watch from the visitor’s gallery.

The third day, the house will elect a regular speaker by a simple majority. The fourth day is allocated for the address of the president to the joint session of Parliament, which is sort of a vision statement for the new government.

By convention, within a few days subsequently, the new government has to prove its majority on the floor of the house. In the case of a government with a simple majority, this becomes mere procedure. But for a government that has been cobbled together with outside support, that day is when the election process is truly behind them. Until the next election is called.