India will hold a general election between April 16 and May 13, election officials said today, kicking off a mammoth process in which 714 million people will be able to cast their votes. The chief of the election commission, which runs elections in the world's largest democracy, said counting of ballots will take place on May 16. The main battle will be between the Congress-led coalition and the leading opposition bloc, headed by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Chief election commissioner Mr Gopalaswami said voting would be held in five phases. "The process of finalising the election schedule takes into account the school examinations ... the local holidays ... festivals, the harvest season and so on," he said. The staggered voting is to allow security forces to move around the country to curb any attempt to coerce an electorate more than twice the population of the United States.
Analysts so far see no party emerging with a clear majority from the election, which could mean weeks or even months of political uncertainty as parties negotiate for power. If the alliances headed by the national parties, the Congress and BJP, fail to win power, pollsters and analysts say, a loose coalition of smaller parties known as the Third Front could come to office. Chief among these are the communists, who thwarted pro-reform policies while supporting the incumbent Congress-led coalition. India could see protectionism and few financial reforms if the Third Front comes to power.
While the financial crisis and security are seen as national issues, many experts say the vote could be dominated by a myriad of caste and regional alliances and local issues. The election comes amid a sharp decline in the economy which is expected to expand 7.1 per cent in fiscal 2008/09, the slowest pace in six years. Domestic demand has slumped and exports have dipped sharply. But it is still unclear how the slowdown will play out with the majority voters in the countryside where government financial help to the farm sector and a landmark jobs scheme have lifted millions out of poverty. Inflation has also fallen.
Analysts say the Congress has been able to checkmate opposition criticism over poor security after the Mumbai attacks by introducing a new terror law, improving security, changing the country's home minister and raising defence spending by nearly a quarter this year. But another militant strike before the election could put terrorism on the top of the voter agenda. * Reuters