AS India Elections
Manish Swarup  /  AP
Polling officers collect their electric voting machines for the first phase of general elections, in Varanasi, India, on Wednesday.
updated 4/15/2009 3:18:32 PM ET 2009-04-15T19:18:32

Thousands of soldiers fanned out across parts of India on Wednesday, one day before Indians started a monthlong election expected to leave the country with a shaky coalition government as it struggles with the global economic slump.

In a nation of nearly 1.2 billion people long accustomed to divisions — of region, religion and caste — there has been little in the campaign to knit the country together. Instead, most campaigning has focused on local issues, whether it's promises of clean water in arid northern regions or free color TVs in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

The election — the largest in the democratic world — will span four weeks, 800,000 polling stations and 700 million eligible voters. Results are expected May 16.

Polls indicate neither the governing Congress party nor the main opposition, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, will win enough seats in the 543-seat lower house of Parliament to rule on their own. That means whichever party gets the most votes will likely have to cobble together a coalition out of dozens of smaller parties, many focused on single, regional issues.

"The issues are there, the economy is a big issue, but the parties are not addressing them," said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst in New Delhi. "There is a paucity of ideas ... The national leaders are cut off from the ground, from the people."

Both major parties were already weakened going into the polls.

Congress, which is ending a five-year stint in power, has seen its main achievement — India's spectacular economic growth, which has averaged more than 8 percent in recent years — hit by the global economic crisis.

It has also faced severe criticism for its bungled response to the Mumbai terrorist attack in November, when 10 gunmen laid siege to the city for three days, killing 166 people.

The BJP, meanwhile, has been hampered by an aging, fractured leadership and accusations that it has stoked tensions between India's Hindu majority and large Muslim minority.

The two main parties' candidates for prime minister, Congress' Manmohan Singh, 76, and the BJP's L.K. Advani, 81, have spent much of their time attacking each other as being too old and weak for the top job.

'Maoist menace'
Thursday's polling, the first of five phases, will include central and eastern states battered by attacks by Maoist militants, leading to the deployment of tens of thousands of soldiers and police.

The guerillas, known as Naxalities, have fought the government for decades in a handful of rural regions, charging authorities with plundering natural resources while providing little to local residents. Since Saturday, more than a dozen police officers have died in their attacks.

The fighters "have done all they could to disrupt the elections," national Home Minister P. Chidambaram told reporters Wednesday. He went on to make another vague campaign promise: "After the elections, we will devise a completely new strategy to combat the Maoist menace."

For some voters, the avalanche of promises has simply left them cynical — and wondering if all the money spent on the polls would be better used elsewhere.

Millions of dollars "are being spent on conducting elections that could have been used for setting up industries," said Bandhu Tirkey, a student in the crime-ridden eastern state of Bihar, where poverty and unemployment are rampant.

'Untouchable' voice
The lack of national issues has opened the door for regional and caste-based parties to claim some of the support traditionally given to the two national parties.

Several have banded together to form an alliance, known as the "Third Front," trying to position itself as an alternative.

Image: Mayawati Kumari
Prakash Singh  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati is making a powerful, and some say credible, play to become the country's first "untouchable" premier.
Best known among them is a party headed by a powerful low-caste politician named Mayawati. She is a Dalit, or "untouchable," the social outcasts at the bottom of the caste system.

Mayawati, who has one name, has become a hero to many low-caste voters but is seen as coarse and corrupt by the Indian establishment. She has made clear her ambition to be India's next prime minister and her Bahujan Samaj Party has emerged as a major force in Indian politics, winning control of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state.

While caste discrimination has been outlawed for more than a half-century, most remain destitute, kept down by ancient prejudices and caste-based politics.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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