HARDWAR, India -- A certain bathing spot by the Ganges here marks the precise point where the sacred river leaves the Himalayas and enters the vast north Indian plain. Once every 12 years -- on a day astrologically determined -- millions descend on this venerated place seeking purification.
A few weeks ago, among the holy men, the squatting beggars and the snake handlers who linger by the river, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi came to pray. His was a pilgrimage not so much in synch with the stars as in line with the political test he faces in India's national elections this week.
His Congress Party, which has led India for 40 of its 44 years of independence, is in danger of losing its traditional bases of support. And many analysts here believe that Mr. Gandhi, having come up short in the last Indian election in 1989, cannot survive another defeat.
In 110-degree heat and amid predictions of widespread violence, more than 300 million Indians will vote tomorrow, Thursday and next Sunday. More than 8,900 candidates from more than 300 parties -- including Hindu holy men, film stars, bandits and ideologues -- are running for 510 of the 545 seats in the lower house of India's parliament, the Lok Sabha.
The outcome of the world's largest democratic exercise is not at all certain: The latest credible poll points toward a hung parliament and more of the debilitating political squabbling that has given India three prime ministers in the last year and a half.
But India's 10th national election -- its first to be held in the scorching heat of pre-monsoon season -- is nonetheless being widely proclaimed as a watershed event.
"In the past, Indian elections were always the Congress Party versus the rest of the parties," said Shekhar Gupta, an editor at India Today, the nation's top news magazine. "This is the first time an election is about issues. The electorate is polarized three ways; by caste, religion and political parties."
Added Bhabani Sen Gupta at New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research: "The Indian political process is in a very deep crisis."
Virtually synonymous with India's secular, mildly socialist self-concept, the Congress Party has long relied on its traditional "vote banks" among upper-caste Hindus, the nation's 100 million Muslims and the majority block of voters, the lower castes and the "untouchables" at the very bottom of the Hindu social scale.
But now the Congress Party is being squeezed from the right by the fast-rising Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] and from the left by a coalition led by the Janata Dal [JD], which is pushing revolutionary socioeconomic reforms aimed at uplifting the impoverished lower castes.
Delhi political pundits say the BJP is whittling away at Congress' support from upper-caste Hindus, while the JD is stealing its Muslim and lower-caste votes.
But interviews last week along 150 miles of dusty highway from Delhi north to Hardwar -- a road which runs through Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and the key to the election's outcome -- show that such theories do not entirely hold up in a desperately poor countryside where the bullock cart still reigns and where only one in three voters can write his name.
In Uttar Pradesh, there were strong signs that the BJP's Hindu fundamentalist pitch is taking hold, rather than the JD's program of social equity.
The JD's message appeared to be widely misunderstood or hardly heard.
And there was evidence that feudal ties and the daily pressures of surviving -- not party manifestoes -- may determine the vote in many rural areas, where 75 percent of India lives.
This, in some areas, could favor the Congress Party's still considerable organizational clout.
"I will vote how my village leader tells me to vote," said Teppal Singh, 32, a farmer, after following "God's will" by ritually dipping in the Ganges at Hardiwar.
The tangled, volatile show of electioneering is being carried across the subcontinent by blaring loudspeakers, endless posters and graffiti, several thousand video vans and massive assemblies of the downtrodden.
Each major party and many candidates have their own astrologers. Vote-buying and capturing of polling sites by armed gangs will be widespread; at least six candidates already have been killed.
The vote comes at a bad time for the world's second largest nation, an increasingly fragmented society with a burgeoning middle-class resting above hundreds of millions barely subsisting.
The stage was set for this vote when Mr. Gandhi -- who assumed office with a record mandate in 1984 after the assassination of his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi -- was defeated in late 1989 by a left-wing coalition led by the JD.
Within a year, the JD government, headed by V. P. Singh, a former Gandhi minister, collapsed amid crises over the two long-standing taboos of Indian politics, caste and religion.
Facing a BJP defection from his coalition, Mr. Singh last fall boldly proposed reserving 27 percent of all government jobs for the lower castes, on top of the 22.5 percent already set aside for the untouchables.
Viewed by some as a cynical ploy to expand Mr. Singh's electoral support, the affirmative-action plan set loose an epidemic of more than 100 self-immolations by middle-class students who believed it would limit their job opportunities.
L. K. Advani, 63, a former journalist who leads the BJP, capitalized on the backlash and launched a 5,000-mile procession across India toward Ajodhya, the site of a Muslim mosque built on the supposed spot where a main Hindu god, Rama, had been born.
Riding a chariot mounted on a Toyota van and calling for replacing the mosque with a Hindu temple, Mr. Advani, along with tens of thousands of supporters, were arrested before reaching the temple. Hundreds died in Hindu-Muslim skirmishes along the way and at Ajodhya.
In the ensuing political crisis, the prime minister's office fell to Chandra Shekhar, whose small party only holds 54 parliament seats and who was widely perceived as Mr. Gandhi's puppet. Mr. Shekhar's government lasted for four months until March, when Mr. Gandhi withdrew his support, forcing Mr. Shekhar to run a caretaker government until elections.
The Congress Party, now with less than half the 430 parliament seats it held from 1984 to 1989, is campaigning mainly on the issue of stability and on Mr. Gandhi's recast, warmer image. "You know him," goes a Congress slogan. "He wishes to know you."
And the JD's Mr. Singh, left with only 76 parliament seats, is telling voters: "You have to decide whether you want an India of love or an India of hatred. The JD stands for an India of love and brotherhood."
But it is the BJP's Hindu fundamentalism that is changing the Indian political agenda, perhaps permanently, by introducing the wild card of religion into the 80-percent Hindu nation's secular political arena.