India To Kick Off Month-long General Election
Tuesday, 14 April 2009

India holds the first stage on Thursday of a staggered general election that could see the ruling Congress party returned to power at the head of a weak coalition just as the Asian power suffers an economic slowdown.

The left-of-centre Congress-led alliance is battling for re-election against a grouping led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a third front of regional and communist parties.

More than 700 million people will be able to vote from a myriad of castes, classes and regions, ranging from the hi-tech hub of Bangalore to the Ganges plains where some "untouchables" still cannot drink from the same wells as upper castes.

The outcome will be known on May 16 after five vote stages. India's elections are notoriously hard to predict, but many pollsters expect a hung parliament leading to an unstable coalition. Exit polls have been banned for the election.

"The race is wide open," said Yashwant Deshmukh, head of the C-Voter Polling Agency. "The chances of a weak coalition are high."

Many polls tip Congress as the most likely victor, but it could depend on the parliamentary support of an unstable coalition of regional parties.

That could rock confidence in India as it deals with a slowdown that has cost millions of jobs, a rising fiscal deficit and tensions with Pakistan after the Mumbai attacks in November.

India's middle classes may shop with credit cards for LCD televisions in gleaming malls, but politicians are appealing to the millions perceived to have been left out by a boom in a country where malnutrition in some places is worse than sub-Saharan Africa.

Ancient caste, linguistic and regional ties will also play a huge role in determining how people vote. In some northern states, the issues of elephants trampling on farmers and the dangers of swarms of mosquitoes have been key to campaigns.


Analysts say the two main national parties, Congress and BJP, may both fare badly, leading to a hung parliament in which smaller regional, caste-based groups and the communists could hold the balance of power or form the government.

"For the first time in 60 years, the combined tally of the two main national parties may be under half the number of votes," said Deshmukh.

A Reuters poll of 14 analysts said a Congress victory was most likely, but that regional parties, known as the Third Front, were gaining momentum.

The possibility of a hung parliament could mean the election is decided by backroom dealings in the weeks after the elections, perhaps leading to a short-lived and unstable government.

That frightens many investors in India, who believe the country needs quick economic reforms, such as relaxation of labour laws, to ensure India continues to grow and compete with China, as well as dealing with a rising fiscal deficit.

Rahul Gandhi, 38-year-old scion of India's most powerful family dynasty, has appeared to lead Congress's campaign, flying by helicopter across the country with a populist message of reaching out to India's "common man".

But Congress's candidate for the premiership is once again Prime Minister Mamohan Singh, 76, a respected elder statesman who has forged closer ties with Washington while steering an economy that has grown at 9 percent for the last four years.

BJP leader L.K Advani, 81, is his main contender, but analysts say his campaign may have lost shine amid controversy over his support for some radical Hindu members, raising fears of communal tensions with India's minority Muslims.

A hung parliament could spring a surprise leader from a smaller party such as Mayawati, the "Queen of the Untouchables", who bases her support among many of the poor of northern India.

The first stage will be centred on the eastern and northern belt of India marked by deep poverty and a Maoist insurgency.

Strips of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, two states that account for 120 of 543 seats in parliament, will vote on Thursday, as well as the insurgency hit states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.

As many as 22,000 rebels are fighting Indian security forces in this belt of India. More than 1,000 cases of Maoist attacks were recorded last year in which more than 200 security personnel and 300 civilians were killed.

"This first phase takes place in some of the most backward areas of India," said Sudheendra Kulkarni, a top election strategist for the BJP. "Of course caste ties are important, but the issues of development and infrastructure will be important."


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