India's month-long staggered
general election begins Thursday, pitting the ruling Congress Party-led
coalition against the opposition alliance, headed by the Hindu-nationalist
Bharatiya Janata Party. Several regional parties are also in the fray and are
likely to play a strong role in deciding who will head the next government in
the world's largest democracy.
Voting begins Thursday
will be largely concentrated in eastern and northern India, including some of
the country's poorest and least-developed areas.
The vote marks the
first stage of an election that is being held in five stages, ending on May
The two principal political alliances - the ruling Congress
Party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party - have campaigned on promises of
uplifting the economic condition of poor people, who form the bulk of the
country's 714 million voters.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 76, is the man who
will head the government, if the Congress Party is successful.
to office with the promise to wipe every tear from every farmers eye," Singh
said. "I sincerely believe we have worked hard to do that. We will not rest till
we see every farmer, every worker, every young man and woman have renewed faith
in their future and a secure livelihood."
Prime Minister Singh's main
opponent is 81-year-old Lal Krishna Advani - the Bharatiya Janata Party's choice
for prime minister, if it wins.
But the BJP, which lost power in 2004,
has been hampered by divisions in its ranks, and accusations that it has stoked
tensions between India's Hindu majority and Muslim minority. Political analysts
say the party is unlikely to emerge a frontrunner. But Advani feels differently.
"I think I am optimistic," Advani said.
A key role will be
played by regional parties, several of which have come together to form a loose
alliance, called the "Third Front". Many of these parties have grown on caste
and linguistic lines in the diverse country. Local issues dominate their poll
agenda. These parties are expected to garner a fair share of the vote.
Analysts expect fragmented vote, weak
Most political analysts expect a weak coalition to
emerge, because the vote is expected to be more fragmented than in previous
elections. As a result, it could take days of deal-making before it is clear who
will head India's next government
Many polls have tipped the Congress
Party as the likely victor, but say its ability to form a government will depend
on how much support it can garner from regional parties.
If neither of
the two main alliances is able to cobble a government together, a leader from a
smaller party may make a bid for power.
Difficult to predict
Delhi University Professor and political analyst Mahesh
Rangarajan says it is difficult to predict the final outcome.
does not seem to be in the race, barring the unforeseen," Rangarajan said.
"Congress is in the race because it is slightly better placed. We are all
expecting a coalition in which regional parties, smaller parties have a larger
say. Or we cannot rule out some sort of a third front."
The voting is
held in stages because of the enormous logistics of arranging polling booths and
adequate security for the world's largest democratic exercise. More than 800,000
polling stations will be set up, guarded by two-million security personnel who
will be rotated through the country. Votes will be counted, May 16.