There is a lot that does not work in India. Despite having the world’s most polluted air, it devotes little urgency to fixing it. It has a weak state capacity to deliver on its ambitious goals.

Its ‘vintage’ military is only just able to ward off terrorists. It has no desire to resolve internal conflicts or border disputes. The judiciary can take literally decades to deliver judgments. It is currently building millions of toilets for its rural poor, who have no sewage lines. The list goes on and on.

Yet there is one thing that keeps India going: elections.

The country’s autonomous Election Commission (EC) announced on March 10 a grueling schedule to hold general elections over seven phases. For the next two and a half months, India will be in election mode. With approximately 900 million registered voters, the world’s largest election just got bigger for the 17th time in seven decades.

The “world’s largest democracy” cliché is taken seriously by most Indians. It is a reminder that we are not China, that we value our freedom and we like to choose our destiny, even if we make mistakes along the way.

‘Anti-incumbency’

Free and fair elections help us correct our mistakes, and such corrections happen rather often. A wise Indian politician in power knows he or she will most likely not be re-elected. The chances of winning power twice in a row are usually so slim that Indian politics has a shorthand term for the phenomenon: “anti-incumbency”.

The idea that people want to vote out the incumbent is so strong that it becomes a force, if not of nature, then surely of the voters. By the time the fifth year of an incumbent government arrives, people are done with them, their days are numbered. Elections keep politicians on their toes, and are the only things that keep the country from becoming a banana republic.

India did not have to be a functioning democracy. Not many expected democracy to survive in a country so diverse and large, so stratified and fractious. It was unique among post-colonial countries to have beaten that expectation.

Free and fair

For all the controversies that occur from time to time, elections in India are more free and fairer than many countries, including the world’s oldest democracy, the United States. That’s because the Election Commission of India (the EC) works independently and efficiently.

Once elections are announced, the prime minister or state chief minister is officially a lame duck, unable to make major policy decisions. At the same time, the EC has at its disposal the entire Indian state bureaucracy to use any way it likes to conduct elections. For the next two and a half months, the Chief Election Commissioner of India is almost more powerful than the Prime Minister of India.

I once asked a senior EC official the secret of his organization’s efficiency, especially considering that, most of the time, the same government bureaucracy usually fails to work smoothly.

“To give you the official answer,” he said, “it’s because we are a constitutional body so we are free of political interference. But to tell you the truth, bureaucrats become more efficient under the EC because it’s the only time the tables are turned. We love it that we get to boss over the politicians for a change.”

Who wants to vote?

Politicians have long tried to rig elections. They used to capture polling booths, stuff ballot boxes with fake votes, intimidate people to not vote and beat them up if they did.

Over the decades, the EC has reduced voter suppression to marginal levels by using electronic voting machines (EVMs) and by requesting the presence of central paramilitary forces at polling booths. This is to ensure that even the most oppressed are able to express their franchise and vote without fear.

For all the power to change governments, there is always the strong sentiment that all politicians are the same, that nothing changes from one government to another. That is how some activists managed to get the NOTA (None of the Above) button on the voting machines. It gives the public a right to express their choice of voting “none of the above” into power.

But only about 1-2% people press the NOTA button. Although voting is not compulsory, around 60% of voters turn up to vote, and most of those fail to do so are away at the time of the election. For most Indians, the vote matters. It is sacred.

Momentary unity

Vivek Yadav is a scholar of political communication. The Indian general election, he argues, is the only time 1.3 billion people come together to form a collective opinion on anything.

Nothing unites India like a national election.