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Last Updated: Monday, 19 April, 2004, 16:39 GMT 17:39 UK
The significance of India's election

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News Online correspondent in Delhi

Atal Behari Vajpayee at the Hyderabad meeting
Vajpayee: The longest serving non-Congress PM
All eyes are on India as the world's largest democracy holds its marathon general election.

The country's 14th national vote is significant for a host of reasons.

It comes at a time when India is no longer seen as a hesitant and nervous player on the global scene.

The economy is expected to grow more than 8% this year thanks to a booming farm sector and a strong showing in the services industry.

The country's foreign exchange reserves have swelled to over $100bn and the stock market has recorded its biggest annual rise in over 10 years. Inflation and interest rates are low.

Peaceful backdrop

This is the first election in almost two decades that is not taking place against the backdrop of serious national anxiety about terrorism or the possibility of war with nuclear-armed neighbour Pakistan or an economic downturn.

There are no nationwide issues in these elections
Political scientist Ashutosh Varshney
It is also the first time that a government, not run by Congress, the country's grand old party, has completed five years in office and is making a fresh bid for power.

A right-of-centre coalition of 22 parties, led by the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is seeking a second consecutive term in office - and harbours big ambitions.

"The BJP-led coalition is trying to consolidate its position to the point where it can claim the mantle of being the natural centre of gravity of Indian politics," says Pratap Bhanu Mehta who teaches politics at Harvard University.

Congress test

Analysts say that this could also turn out to be a make-or-break election for the Congress party which has ruled India for 45 years since independence.

INDIA VOTES
Voting on 20, 26 April and 5, 10 May
Counting of votes on 13 May
675 million eligible to vote
543 MPs elected for five years
1 million voting machines
Log up to five votes a minute
"If its performance declines substantially, it could be the end of the party," says Mr Mehta.

Analysts feel that the Congress has not been able to capitalise on the failings of the BJP-led government.

They say the party is hampered by internal feuds and a leadership crisis - the party's near-total dependence on a member of India's famous Nehru-Gandhi family to lead them keeps out other promising leaders.

A slew of pre-election opinion polls in the Indian media give Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's ruling BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) the lead over Congress.

The astute, grandfatherly and consensual 79-year-old, a part-time poet, is the BJP's main vote winner.

The party seems to be projecting Mr Vajpayee as the last great pan-Indian leader - an untainted statesman who rises above the country's murky politics.

India shining?

Mr Vajpayee is pushing what his party spin doctors describe as the "feel-good factor" among people because "India is shining" - a reference to a government advertising campaign.

Sonia Gandhi and supporters
Sonia Gandhi's Congress party insists its economic record is strong
The BJP is confident of cashing in on robust economic growth and Mr Vajpayee's peace initiatives with Pakistan.

Congress, which actually kick-started economic reforms in the early 1990s, says the benefits of liberalisation have benefited only a few.

They could be right - a third of a billion Indians still live on less than $1 a day.

India's economic growth still does not help absorb the huge numbers of people required to tide over its vast unemployment problem.

So the BJP's 'India Shining' campaign is unlikely to swing ballots in its favour across vast swathes of a diverse country.

For example, in the water-starved southern state of Tamil Nadu, local caste issues and non-availability of drinking water are likely to dominate over the country's record economic growth or Mr Vajpayee's foreign policy initiatives.

This is an election where the battle will be fought constituency by constituency
Political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta
So regional parties will hold the key to forging a winning coalition, however much the BJP would prefer to mop up the maximum number of seats itself.

The BJP and the Congress are directly pitted against each other, with no regional party in the fray, in only 103 of the 543 constituencies in just six out of 28 states.

"There are no nationwide issues in these elections. The national result will be an aggregation of state-level results. State level issues will determine the national results," says Ashutosh Varshney, who teaches political science at the University of Michigan.

'Intriguing'

The lesson of the 14th general election may well be the further rise of regional parties at the expense of the mainstream parties.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta says the outcome "may still produce intriguing possibilities".

"This is an election where the battle will be fought constituency by constituency. The exact distribution of seats across regions, rather than simply the aggregate will matter a great deal," he says.

Pre-poll surveys during the week leading up to the elections are hinting at a wafer thin majority for the BJP-led coalition or even a hung parliament.

The election will answer some questions critical to the BJP's future as a party and a coalition leader.

"Will impressive economic growth be sufficient enough for the BJP to craft a new social coalition? Or are the gains of growth distributed so unevenly that there still will be substantial dissatisfaction with the BJP and impede its ability to craft a broader social coalition?" wonders Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

India will know the answers on 13 May when the suspense is over and the results are declared.




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