- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009

NEW DELHI (AP) - Hundreds of thousands of Indians went to polling stations Thursday to start the world’s biggest democratic elections, a monthlong process expected to yield no clear winner to lead India as it grapples with global economic malaise.

The vote is the first of five phases in which some 714 million people _ more than twice the population of the United States _ will be eligible to cast ballots.

Thursday’s polling includes 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 Naxalites, 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.

With more than 1.2 billion citizens, India normally holds staggered elections for logistic and security reasons.

Results of the massive election, which will use more than 1.3 million electronic voting machines in 828,804 polling stations, are expected May 16.

But few expect a clear mandate from the Indian voter after a lackluster campaign that has been devoid of a central issue, mirroring a country fragmented by differences of region, religion and caste _ the country’s complex Hindu social system.

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 the elections will likely leave India with a shaky coalition government.

On Thursday 124 seats in the lower house are up for grabs.

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 also has faced severe criticism for the bungled handling of the Mumbai terror attack in November, when 10 gunmen rampaged through the city for three days, killing 164 people.

The BJP also is in disarray. Its leadership is aging and fragmented, its anti-terror line was criticized as too harsh in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, and it has been blamed for stoking tensions between India’s Hindu majority and large Muslim minority.

The two main parties also have seen their support eroded by regional parties focused on local issues or on particular castes in the country’s complex Hindu social system.

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