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India's Citizens Commence Voting to Choose New Parliament Officials

By John-Thor Dahlburg
Los Angeles Times
SAMPLA, India

The future of the world's most populous democracy is in the hands of Narender Singh Ohlayan and millions of ordinary Indians like him.

Should India proclaim itself a nuclear power and openly build bombs? What role should foreign capital be allowed to play in the economy? Should India wholeheartedly embark on an arms race with archenemy Pakistan?

To address those issues and others, Indians began voting Saturday to choose a new Parliament and government. The latest opinion polls suggest that voters will shun the government of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and award the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party the most seats.

In this wheat- and mustard-growing region in northern India's Haryana state, dissatisfaction with the status quo is almost palpable. Like many of his neighbors, Ohlayan, 60, a former worker in the state irrigation system, is fed up with the rulers in New Delhi and longs for change.

"It's because of the politicians that everything has gone wrong," the bespectacled retiree said after trudging half a mile in a neatly pressed pajama suit to cast his ballot at a one-story schoolhouse. "Congress used to work for people's welfare. Now Congress workers are all corrupt and work only for themselves."

In part because of a recent payoffs scandal that has tainted not only the Congress Party but the BJP and other parties as well, Indians' faith in their leaders has never been lower. In the city of Patna on the Ganges River, a eunuch has been running for Parliament with the campaign pitch that since the men and women elected to office have proved corrupt, why not support someone who is neither?

Voting by India's immense 590-million-member electorate is spread over six days, with troubled Jammu and Kashmir state being the last where ballots will be cast. Tabulation for all states save Jammu and Kashmir will take place May 8-9.

Once the votes are counted, Congress seems certain to win fewer seats than the 232 it snared in the last general election, in 1991. Although Congress has been in power for all but four of India's nearly 49 years as an independent nation, some observers think this year's elections will sound its death knell as the dominant factor in Indian politics.

Even if Congress does not win the "clear majority" in the 545-seat lower house of Parliament it could cut a deal with smaller parties to create a coalition government.