The world's biggest exercise in democracy begins today when Indians in over one hundred constituencies head to the polls. Such is the size of national elections in a country of over one billion people that Thursday's voters won't know the results in their local contests till one month later, after citizens in the rest of India's 543 constituencies vote in a five-phased process.
The numbers tell their own story. An electorate of 714 million will vote in over eight hundred thousand polling stations, choosing between candidates from 1,055 political parties including seven national parties and a plethora of regional and state parties. Four million electoral officials and 2.1 million security personnel will be mobilised to ensure the fairness and safety of the polls. The month-long voting process puts so much pressure on security forces that the Indian Premier League - a glitzy cricket tournament that symbolises the optimistic and confident mood of this cricket-mad country - is taking place in exile this year, in distant South Africa. Democracy squared up to cricket, the national passion, and won.
But while the scale of Indian democracy is gargantuan, so too are the problems of security, development and governance that India's fifteenth Lok Sabha (the lower house of parliament) will have to address.
Clouds on the horizon
The Mumbai attacks of last November were a reminder that the crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan (now joined in media parlance as "AfPak") will invariably have implications for neighbouring India. At the same time, a Maoist rebellion grips the central interior, while separatist insurgencies continue to simmer in the north and the far east of the country.
India's economic success story of recent years may also be tarred by the global economic meltdown. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had insisted in December that India, with its large domestic market and fairly sensible borrowing practices, would emerge relatively unscathed from the recession. In the last five years, the Indian economy has grown at a rate of 8.6 percent. But the country is not impervious to ripples of decline elsewhere. The southern state of Kerala, for instance, depends in large part on remittances from migrant workers in the Gulf states. Tens of thousands of migrants are now returning home after being laid off in the recession-hit emirates, forcing Kerala to face the prospect of a shrunken economy and an unemployment crisis. The prime minister, an economist by training, also has conceded recently that India's rate of growth may dip below 7 percent in the next year.
While many economic and social indicators in India have shown signs of steady improvement in recent years, rates of poverty, malnutrition, disease and illiteracy remain depressingly high. A booming middle class cannot mask India's glaring inequalities of wealth and lifestyle, chasms made all the more unbridgeable by endemic corruption and bureaucratic indifference.
Though there are signs that the traditionally apathetic Indian middle classes may be more energised and engaged this year than in previous elections, it is disproportionately the poor of India who vote, the poor who queue for hours at polling stations in the sweltering pre-monsoon heat, who walk for miles often through jungle and mountain paths to have a say in how their continent of a country is run.
What do they have to choose from within the blizzard of India's political parties and agendas? And what should outsiders pay attention to, beyond the platitudes, as the "world's largest democracy" heads to the polls?
The grey ladies
In the last twenty years, two parties have largely dominated Indian politics. The secular, centrist and nearly 125 year-old Indian National Congress - the party of the independence struggle against the British and of the political dynasty begun by India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru - currently heads the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition. Its chief (but by no means its only) opponent is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist party that fronts a fraying coalition of parties dubbed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
Their leaders are talismanic figures in Indian politics. Though Congress' candidate for prime minister is the incumbent Manmohan Singh, he shares the limelight with party leader Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, the widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and mother of the party's presumptive heirs, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, scions of the Nehru dynasty. The BJP leader, the venerable Lal Krishna Advani, launched the controversial Ramjanmbhoomi movement in the 1980s that at once catapulted the BJP and Hindu nationalism into the fore of the Indian political scene and culminated in the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, an act that re-opened India's bloody communal wounds.
In the last national election in 2004, the Congress-led UPA ousted the BJP-led NDA. The Congress or the BJP will most probably head the next government.
In terms of actual policy, the Congress and the BJP share much in common. Both are keen on steering India towards a closer relationship with the United States, while maintaining strong and independent bilateral ties with Russia, China and other powers. Both are broadly committed to the program of economic liberalisation that India embarked upon nearly twenty years ago, though Congress returned to power in 2004 after the BJP overplayed its pro-free market message of an "India Shining". The BJP has since criticised the UPA's more statist welfare measures, like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005, as merely encouraging cronyism and corruption.
Their main difference remains one of ideology, with the Congress committed to the secular and pluralist principle that the Indian state is not defined by any single religion, and with the BJP claiming that a Hindu civilisational ethos undergirds modern India. This general ideological divide makes it impossible for some smaller parties - like those on the Left - to ally closely with the BJP. But the real game of Indian politics is played on a much more minute, shifting field, as the big two parties vie for the backing of a host of regional, caste and issue-based parties.
The necessity of compromise
It is a testament to the vibrancy and the chaos of democratic politics in India that neither the Congress nor the BJP will be able to form the next government without the support of other parties of varying shape and character. In the lead-up to this election, both parties' coalitions have effectively collapsed, with the withdrawal of several major regional allies. These and other regional parties, along with Leftist and caste-based national parties, have in recent months formed a number of mercurial, fractious alliances under the fanciful monikers the "Third Front" and the "Fourth Front", which exist in name more than in reality.
But their message is clear. The Congress and the BJP, the two giants of Indian politics, will have to increasingly accommodate other agendas and interests in building a workable majority in parliament.
Such is the growing strength of these alternative parties that it is not totally inconceivable that the next prime minister could emerge from their ranks and not those of the Congress or the BJP. Mayawati, chief of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which claims to represent the interests of the most marginalised castes and tribal peoples, is a potential candidate in this vein. She is Chief Minister of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, which boasts a population equivalent to that of all of Brazil. As a Dalit - an "untouchable" - and a woman, her ascent is already remarkable and a sign of shifting hierarchies and power-bases in India. Though her becoming prime minister remains an unlikely (and to many, an unsavoury) possiblity, the BSP, which was once mostly confined to Uttar Pradesh, is now contesting in constituencies across the country and may well have a hand in playing kingmaker come 16 May.
While not unprecedented in Indian politics (a "third party" coalition held power briefly in the late 1990s), the rise of alternative parties like the BSP is symptomatic of the shrinking popularity of the big parties in vast swathes of India, in part because of their failures to deliver meaningful and enduring change throughout the country, especially in rural areas.
Coalition politics is now the modus operandi. Both the UPA coalition (twenty parties) and the NDA government before it (23 parties) managed to keep their restless allies in line and see out full terms in office. The endless negotiation and politicking required in holding these governments together is seen by some as healthy for Indian democracy.
As the historian Mahesh Rangarajan suggests, the necessity of compromise between a government at the "Centre" in New Delhi and its allies in the states, its "regional satraps", may be more in keeping with the true spirit of Indian federalism, restraining the "adventurism" of the smaller parties while still allowing their contribution to the "opening up of new spaces in politics".
Viewed from the perspective of China - India's fellow "Asian giant" and supposed rival - the horse-trading in New Delhi may look criminally inefficient and venal. But seen from within, it is part of the organic, incremental evolution of India's political system, one that is still striving to better govern, through the ballot box, a country of incomparable diversity and size.
At the same time, coalition politics by its very nature militates against decisive action at the Centre. What a ruling party gains in power from the support of its coalition members, it loses in its ability to shape a firm, coherent national policy without the consent of its jockeying allies. Last summer, the UPA government nearly collapsed after the Left parties threatened to withdraw their outside support for the ruling coalition in a dispute over the Indo-US nuclear deal, forcing a confidence vote in parliament that the UPA tortuously scraped through. The next government will invariably face similar complications as it attempts to advance policy initiatives while preserving the delicate political balance on which its power rests.
That this balance relies in large part on parties with narrow, identity-based agendas is a cause for concern for many Indians. The writer and historian Ramachandra Guha insists that coalition politics of the current brand make it impossible for governments to coherently tackle major issues like education, healthcare and foreign policy. What India needs, according to Guha, is the emergence of a new party that cuts across national and identity-based lines, and represents the aspirations of the country's growing middle class.
Part of the reason that India's middle classes don't vote in great numbers is because they find the array of parties and candidates before them uninspiring (of course, turnout is also low amongst the urban educated because apathy is high). A number of professionals from other spheres - dancers, writers, army captains and so forth - have entered the fray this year, challenging the typical, careerist politicians in their constituencies. Indian democracy can only benefit from their engagement, and from the greater engagement of all its citizens.