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Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times
New Delhi, March 05, 2014
With chief election commissioner VS Sampath announcing a nine-phase poll-schedule – starting April 7 and ending on May 12 -- for the 16th Lok Sabha, India has officially entered election mode.

In the next few weeks, the competition for ticket-distribution will climax with selection of candidates, who will then hit the ground in frenetic campaigns. Manifestoes will be released. Each party will project grand visions and cut narrow deals at the constituency-level to eye more votes. Politicians will stare down from every conceivable public space. Rallies, posters, pamphlets, corner meetings will punctuate the landscape.

When the voters arrive at the booth, they will have multiple choices.

On one hand is the ruling Congress, which suffers from ten years of incumbency and appears tired. The party is in the middle of a generational transition, and goes into polls as the clear under-dog.

On the other is a relatively confident BJP, which has adapted its traditional recipe of catering to majoritarian sentiment with the promise of 'development'. It has sought to defy the complex rules of Indian parliamentary democracy by attempting to turn the contest into a referendum on its controversial PM-candidate, Narendra Modi. 

Read: Race for magical 272: Who is bigger - Modi or Rahul?

Read: BJP welcomes poll schedule announcement

But unlike the simplistic media projection of a binary contest, voters will have other choices.

The electoral history of the last twenty years reveals deepening fragmentation of the polity. Even for national-level polls, citizens have often opted for state-level parties, confirming the old adage of how all politics is local. Regional parties continue to govern some of India's most politically-influential states and will remain critical.

Read: Indians urged to vote in 'informed, ethical manner'

Read: An election of contrasts to celebrate the Indian Republic

And then, there is, in limited pockets, the new kid on the block – the Aam Aadmi Party. With its anti-establishment and anti-corruption message, the party has lifted the silence around many taboos in public discourse. But whether it has the appeal, the organisational structure, and the message to win over India's diverse electorate remains a big question.

When voters pick candidates from one of these formations, they will shape India's future. The next government will be tasked with providing basic services of education and health, reviving growth, generating employment, restoring institutional credibility, and addressing the rampant inequities. On May 16, India will answer who it trusts to handle these myriad challenges.

HT Poll: Which are the three issues that, according to you, will top the voters’ mind in these elections?