India braces for mother of all electoral battles | delhi | Hindustan Times
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India braces for mother of all electoral battles

The world's largest democratic exercise begins in India on Thursday with over 700 million people eligible to vote in a no-holds-barred battle that is expected to throw up another hung parliament.

delhi Updated: Apr 13, 2009 08:44 IST

The world's largest democratic exercise begins in India on Thursday with over 700 million people eligible to vote in a no-holds-barred battle that is expected to throw up another hung parliament.

For once, no political party is even claiming with an air of confidence that it can bag a majority on its own in the 545-seat Lok Sabha so as to rule the world's second most populous nation.

Both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) have already developed cracks, with regional and smaller parties increasingly asserting themselves.

The Communists have teamed up with a motley group of regional outfits to provide an alternative that is dubbed the Third Front. There is also a Fourth Front. And there are groups and also-rans that are independent of all these alliances.

With every seat expected to matter when the results of the staggered elections are known May 16, friends in one state are taking on each other elsewhere, complicating an already complex political scenario.

"It is a very perplexing election," political analyst Kamal Mitra Chenoy of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) said. "It will definitely be a coalition (that will take power)."

Political analyst G V L Narasimha Rao admitted that Indian elections were becoming more and more difficult to predict.

"There are no mega alliances because regional players have understood that even if you have a handful of seats, you could play a major part in the national government," Rao said. "The stakes are very high."

The Congress, India's oldest political party, and the BJP remain the central pillars of the election but are looking less and less attractive to smaller outfits that would have begged for their embrace only five years ago.

With its monopolistic hold over national politics shattered, the Congress is finding the going tough. Many of its allies since May 2004, when it dramatically dislodged the BJP and took power, have deserted it.

These include the Communists, who had a bitter parting of ways last year over the India-US nuclear deal. The Samajwadi Party, which rescued the Manmohan Singh government then, is now its harshest critic.

The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) remain with the Congress-led government but are battling the Congress in Bihar's 40 Lok Sabha constituencies.

From the over 20 partners it had about a decade ago, the BJP now has only three major allies besides some who have returned to its fold after a long gap. It suffered a major blow when Orissa's Biju Janata Dal (BJD) snapped its 11-year alliance in March, blaming the BJP for anti-Christian violence in the state.

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati is a dark horse. The Dalit politician is not hiding her desire to be prime minister if the BSP grabs a huge chunk of Uttar Pradesh's 80 valuable Lok Sabha seats.

Political activists admit that the increasingly fragmented verdicts in parliamentary elections have given smaller parties the importance they lacked earlier.

"Ten years ago, if one had 10 MPs, nobody would care. Now each MP is important. So smaller parties are playing as hard as they can get. So they want to maintain their independent grouping so that they can maximise their bargaining power," a Congress strategist said.

The strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, admitted that no party, the Congress included, would clinch more than 150 seats in this election.

The Congress won only 145 seats in 2004 but went on to form a coalition. However, government formation even with 150 seats - if it gets that many - will not be easy this time as many of those who eagerly landed in its lap five years ago have divorced it.

Both the Congress and the BJP are repeatedly asserting that no government will be possible minus one of the two biggies.

"The real confusion is that there is no central magnet which will automatically attract people from the other fronts," said analyst Chenoy.

But Rao added: "Once one big party gets the momentum to form a government, everything will fall in place."

India's electorate totals 714 million - more than the population of the US and Russia put together. The first round of balloting will take place April 16 and the fifth and last one May 13 -- an exercise involving millions of officials and security personnel. Votes will get counted May 16. A new government should be in place within a week.