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Indian Elections Feature Fight Between Youth, Experience

India's staggered elections for more than 500 parliamentary seats, known as the world's largest democratic exercise, have begun, with some 700 million people eligible to cast ballots. Just like the U.S. elections five months ago, India's national campaign features experience versus youth with 40 million young people expected to vote for the first time. Analysts say the country lacks a leader who can galvanize people around a national agenda.

The main fight in India's elections is between the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Lal Krishna Avani, and the ruling Congress Party of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The Congress Party is promoting the man many see as a future prime minister, 38-year-old scion of the Gandhi dynasty, Rahul Gandhi. He is seen as young and fresh but a political novice who entered politics just five years ago. After his election to the national parliament, Rahul became his party's general secretary.

His mother, Sonia Gandhi, is the Italian-born widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. She runs the Congress party, but five years ago declined the post of prime minister.

Rahul Gandhi has aimed his appeal to the 40 million youth who are voting for the first time this year.

"The difference between a young person and an old person is, a young person looks to the future," Gandhi said.

A long-time India expert, Walter Andersen teaches at the Johns Hopkins University. He noted Gandhi's appeal to India's youth.

"I think young people in particular are disgusted by corruption, by the lack of efficiency in government," he said. "They see it as something, which is kind of humiliation."

The Congress Party is putting the young Rahul Gandhi out front in the parliamentary campaign. But South Asia expert Teresita Schaffer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says that might not have a huge impact.

"It may matter, but I don't think it is likely to sweep the nation," she explained.

Experts say Rahul Gandhi's best chance to become prime minister is in the next election, five years from now, and that if the Congress party wins, Manmohan Singh will remain prime minister.

Singh's main rival is BJP leader Advani. His critics call the 81-year-old politician divisive because of his long record of promoting Hindu nationalism to a secular nation.

"He is remarkably healthy at 81. As far as I know he has no illnesses at all of any significance," Walter Andersen said. "He looks like a man quite a bit younger than 81."

And despite his age, Advani has conducted an Obama-style new media campaign. He has his own Web site and runs a blog to reach out to young voters.

Following the November attacks in Mumbai, one of the dominant issues is terrorism. India's 700 million voters also face choices on pocketbook matters like the economy, health care and education.

Both Andersen and Schaffer say none of the two parties are expected to win an outright majority.

"For over 20 years, in every single election the combined total voting share of the Congress and the BJP has shrunk compared to the previous elections and the combined total share of the one-state parties has grown," said Schaffer.

She says that can make it difficult for either national party to form an effective coalition in New Delhi. Gone are charismatic leaders like Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1991, and BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee who has retired.

A leading political analyst in India says no prime minister since has had such personal appeal, but that India needs a leader who can override regional issues and galvanize the country behind a cohesive national agenda.