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India Begins 3-Week Process to Elect New Parliament - 2004-04-19

India, the world's largest democracy, begins the mammoth exercise of electing a new parliament on Tuesday. A staggered system of voting will be spread over three weeks. The ruling coalition is hoping that a booming economy will win it a new mandate.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is in an optimistic mood as Indians begin voting in a five-stage election that will not end until May 10.

One-hundred forty of 543 elected seats in India's lower house of parliament will be contested across 13 states on the first day of voting Tuesday.

Voting is staggered to allow hundreds of thousands of security personnel to move from one region to the next across the vast country, from the high Himalayas in the north to the southern coastal areas.

The elections pit the National Democratic Alliance, a multi-party coalition led by the BJP, against the Congress Party and its allies. The BJP is headed by the popular Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The BJP has dropped its hard-line Hindu-nationalist agenda, and instead has run an aggressive campaign focusing on a growing economy and recent peace moves with neighboring Pakistan. Using the slogan "India Shining," the party is promising to turn the nation into an economic powerhouse.

Hiranmay Karlekar, political editor of Pioneer newspaper, says the claim will be tested by the voters.

?The first issue is of course the idea of 'India Shining,' whether the country is really on a trajectory to a high rate of growth, that India has arrived among the more advanced of developing nations,? he said.

The opposition Congress Party, led by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, has charged that the BJP's rule has failed to dent the lives of millions of Indians who continue to live in poverty and deprivation. The party has promised to focus on their needs if voted into power.

Recent opinion polls predict Mr. Vajpayee's coalition will be returned to office, but with a much narrower majority than projected in earlier surveys - a situation that would necessitate another unwieldy coalition.

The moving security for the election is necessary because of India's many insurgent groups, which often resort to violence. The campaign has already seen attacks by Islamic rebels in the northern state of Kashmir, communist guerrillas in the center of the country and tribal separatists in the northeast. Two prominent politicians escaped apparent attempts on their lives Sunday.

The ballots are being cast on electronic voting machines, and will all be counted on May 13.