India will hold general elections next month, officials announced on Monday, kick-starting a frenetic campaign for the 700-million votes up for grabs in the world’s biggest democracy.
Voting for a new Parliament will be staggered from April 16 to May 13, allowing for the deployment of 2,1-million security personnel and four million electoral staff.
Dominating the race are the ruling Congress Party of Italian-born Sonia Gandhi and incumbent premier Manmohan Singh, and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under veteran Hindu nationalist LK Advani.
But neither side is seen as strong enough to win enough seats to govern alone, and the results — expected soon after May 16 — are likely to lead to complex rounds of horse-trading for the support of smaller regional parties.
”No party will have a clear mandate in the upcoming elections,” said political commentator MJ Akbar, noting the number of coalitions that have governed India since 1996.
Chief election commissioner N Gopalaswami told reporters that voting would take place countrywide over five phases to allow for the movement of election staff and security personnel.
In a mammoth operation, more than 1,1-million electronic voting machines will be deployed in 828 000 polling stations for the five-phase polls, he said.
The major parties have already begun campaigning, with Pakistan, terrorism, Hindu nationalism and the economic slowdown among the key issues.
The BJP said it was in a position to win back power.
”The country has suffered, and we are confident that after the votes are counted a new administration under our leader Lal Krishna Advani will take charge,” BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad told a news conference.
The BJP is campaigning on ”good governance, development and security,” while also reviving a pledge to build a Hindu temple on the ruins of a demolished 16th century mosque.
The hugely divisive temple project has been a Hindu-Muslim flashpoint since Hindu activists destroyed the mosque in 1992, triggering riots that left about 2 000 people dead.
But Congress managed a strong showing in state elections held late last year, winning in Delhi and the desert state of Rajasthan.
This was despite predictions it would suffer a voter backlash due to the Mumbai terror attacks in November and a deepening economic slump.
Congress is also highlighting its flagship welfare programmes as proof that it has kept its 2004 election promise to work for the benefit of the aam admi, or common man.
Gandhi, the widow of former premier Rajiv Gandhi, has also urged people to reject the BJP’s policies of ”polarisation, division and hatred”.
The Congress government is seen as having successfully shrugged off accusations of being ”weak on terrorism” in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, thanks to a concerted diplomatic push against arch rival Pakistan.
One of the main points of debate among election forecasters is how the global economic troubles will play with voters.
While India’s economy has expanded at nearly nine percent a year through Singh’s current term and was cushioned from the initial fallout from the crisis, growth has now slowed sharply and job losses are starting to mount.
Half a million people were thrown out of work in the three months to December and an export lobby group forecasts the number will hit at least 1,5-million by the end of this fiscal year.
Also uncertain is the health of incumbent Prime Minister Singh (76), who underwent heart bypass surgery last month and is still recovering. Congress says Singh will lead the party into the polls. — AFP