India prepares for vote, its third in 40 months; 605 million can cast ballot in parliamentary election


NEW DELHI, India -- Indian national elections begin today, and, as always, they are likely to be a great, if unwieldy, display of democracy, this time requiring a month of voting and 800,000 polling locations for the 605 million people eligible to cast a ballot.

But as impressive as Indian elections may be, they are becoming too much of a good thing, with this being the third vote in 40 months, a result of fragmented and sometimes treacherous politics that produce easy-to-disassemble coalition governments.

The current round of parliamentary elections became necessary in April when an alliance headed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party lost its majority by a single vote. It seemed that the Congress Party, the BJP's strongest opponent, would be able to cobble together a majority of its own, but that did not come to pass.

Since then, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP has been running an interim government, awaiting the elections, which will occur in five stages. Voting will also take place Saturday, Sept. 18 and 25, and Oct. 3. Counting will begin after the final round.

If pre-election polls are correct, the Hindu nationalists will again lead a patchwork coalition, though one with more seats in Parliament. Vajpayee will remain in charge. He has succeeded in providing a more acceptable face for the BJP.

The campaign has been without much Hindu-Muslim friction. As in the last election, the BJP has set aside the more controversial parts of its agenda -- such as the call for the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a demolished mosque -- with an eye toward mustering a majority coalition.

The campaigning has not been short on the incendiary, however. Personal insults, impugned patriotism and general bombast are in overabundant supply, so much so that on Thursday the chief election commissioner, M. S. Gill, called for "a cease-fire" and asked politicians "to turn their attention to issues that matter to us as a people."

Some of the maligning of personalities, commentators frequently point out, comes from a dearth of disagreement on more substantial matters. The two major parties have similar views on economics and foreign policy.

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