India's Great Election Circus

In what is being touted as the world's largest democratic voting exercise, India is in the throes of general elections to choose 543 members to its 15th Lok Sabha, or parliamentary lower house. More than 714 million voters – twice the population of the US and 10 times that of France – are exercising their franchise between April 16 and May 13.

The scale of the exercise is mind-boggling. For logistical and security reasons, the voting will be staggered over five stages involving 6.5 million staff where 4,617 candidates, representing 300-odd parties, will seek office. Across 828,804 polling stations, 1.3 million electronic voting machines (EVMs) will be deployed, watched over by 2 million security personnel. The results will be announced on May 16.

However, while the elections will provide considerable political theatre, analysts warn of a fractured mandate from voters disenchanted about a campaign devoid of strong national issues and concerned with a flagging economy. Polls indicate that neither the ruling Congress party, which leads the governing United Progressive Alliance coalition, nor the main opposition party – the right-wing, Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -- will win enough seats in the Parliament to form a majority. What looks more feasible is an unwieldy coalition of multifarious regional parties that will be swept into power at the center.

Not that this was entirely unexpected. Both the Congress and the BJP have lost political ground in many states, powerful regional parties have gained prominence and find themselves moving towards the national center stage.

With the demise of single-party governments in India (the last such government at the center was formed by the Congress Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi's assassinated husband, in 1989), local parties are drawing sustenance from caste and regional issues and will play a vital role in shaping the contours of national coalition governments. According to poll predictions, this time round, regional parties will likely take as many as half of the Lok Sabha's 543 seats.

Given this political scenario, it is tough to predict who India's next prime minister will be. The ruling Congress' candidate, Manmohan Singh, 76, has been attacked by the BJP for being a weak leader who takes his orders from Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the UPA coalition. But the economist, the antithesis of a Machiavellian Indian politician, has a few things going for him. He can take credit for holding together a clumsy coalition formed in 2004 when the previous coalition headed by the BJP, the National Democratic Alliance, came undone.

Singh, the architect of India's economic reforms in the 1990s, has also presided over unprecedented double-digit economic growth. He has also helped to raise India's international profile by pushing through a controversial civil nuclear treaty with the US. In fact because there's really no strong anti-incumbency factor at play against Singh, analysts say, and because the BJP is largely issueless, he may well retain power.

At the last election, in 2004, for instance, the Congress took 145 of India's 543 parliamentary seats, only slightly up from the anemic 114 in 1999.

Under Sonia Gandhi's 38-year-old son, Rahul Gandhi, who fortuitously lacks his mother's disadvantage of foreign birth, a serious opposition issue, and shares her powerful dynastic name, the Congress hopes to cash in on India's young demographic. Two-thirds of India's 1.2 billion people are below 35 years. If the Congress does retain power in the election, most expect Rahul to take over the prime ministerial reins from Singh within a year or so. The economist is getting on in years and has just recuperated from bypass surgery that incapacitated him for weeks.

Not that age is a deterrent for prime ministerial hopefuls in India. The BJP's candidate, L.K. Advani, is 82 and despite his age – or perhaps because of it – has been assiduously wooing India's young by projecting himself as a 'young-at-heart' leader. In fact his global online campaign to woo voters is being touted as one of the most ambitious in modern political history.

Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state and its most politically sensitive, sends 80 members to Parliament. Although once a Congress stronghold, the state is now dominated by two caste-based parties, Bahujan Samaj Party led by another PM-hopeful, Mayawati, and Samajwadi Party, with Mulayam Singh Yadav as its leader.

Mayawati bases her support on Dalits, known in past decades as untouchables, and could become premier if she manages to pull off an alliance with left parties in the amorphous 'Third Front'. The Third Front, the only viable alternative to a Congress- or BJP-led coalition, is an alliance of left-leaning and regional parties.

In recent weeks, a Fourth Front has also come into being, comprised of disparate regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party, another caste-based party from Uttar Pradesh, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal from Bihar. While this faction is unlikely to form a government by itself, it has benefited politically with support from Chiranjeevi, a popular Telugu-language movie star, who last year formed his own party Praja Rajam in India's southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

But regardless of who comes to power at the center, the going will be far from easy. The current election comes in the midst of the global economic slump, which has hit India, cutting forecast 2009 gross domestic product growth to 5.1 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund. India also faces grave terror threats from across all its borders, especially from Pakistan as demonstrated by the 26/11 Mumbai massacre, a brutal attack on the country's financial capital that killed 164 people and destroyed property worth millions.

Domestic violence is a nuisance too. The first phase of the current elections was marred by Naxalite violence in four states that killed 18 people, including five polling officials and 10 security personnel. Polling booths were set afire and a gun battle between Naxals and security forces in Chattisgarh left two jawans, or private security guards, dead.

Be that as it may, what augurs well for India is the fact its democracy is still robust, the country enjoys enduring civilian rule and has a free press, a signal that whoever wins, it should be a largely free and fair election.

Neeta Lal is a new Delhi-based journalist and can be reached at neetalal@hotmail.com