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Hopes, Fears Frame Decisions in Competitive Indian Election

By Kenneth J. Cooper
The Washington Post
PATNA, India

Millions massed at polling places Monday to participate in the most competitive election in independent India's 50-year history and the second parliamentary vote in the world's largest democracy in less than two years.

The last published opinion polls indicated that the vote - to be held on four days between now and March 7 - will yield an indecisive result, leading to another coalition government. During Monday's first phase, with 40 percent of Parliament's 545 seats at stake, voter turnout dipped below the historical average of 60 percent.

Preliminary reports said at least 17 people were killed in election-related violence, 15 of them in the impoverished and sometimes lawless eastern state of Bihar.

India's 600 million eligible voters face a choice among a long-ruling but now declining Congress party, the emergent Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the United Front, a secularist coalition of 14 centrist, leftist and regional parties formed after the 1996 election to keep the BJP out of power. In 11 previous elections, no more than two blocs competed at the national level.

The collapse last December of the coalition government of Prime Minister I.K. Gujral forced an election three years ahead of schedule. It was the second United Front government to fall since June 1996, both times because the Congress party withdrew its support.

Voters have appeared torn between a wish for an honest, stable government - a trend that works against the scandal-plagued Congress party, among others - and a fear of communal tensions if the BJP, the largest party in the last parliament, is given a clear mandate.

That central conflict could be heard in the voices of anxious voters here in the drab provincial capital of Bihar state, where the BJP is likely to make its largest gains because of divisions among its opponents.

The BJP has declared India, one of the most socially diverse countries in the world, to be "one nation, one people and one culture" based on the traditions of its Hindu majority. The party's election platform, asserts that the Hindu god Ram - who is not even central in the worship of all Hindus - "lies at the core of Indian consciousness."

In Bihar, politics have been dominated in recent years by the state's former chief minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav, who was jailed last year on corruption charges and kicked out of the Janata Dal, Gujral's left-leaning party. But Yadav, a rustic low-caste leader, rebounded by inserting his wife as chief minister, winning his release on bail and forming a new party to compete with his old one, the BJP and its regional ally in one of India's poorest states.

Mandrika Singh Yadav, a farmer, said he had abandoned loyalty to his landholding Yadav caste and voted for the BJP candidate in the rural fringes of Patna, where winter crops of potatoes and onions were being harvested in the morning sun.

Despite the corruption charges, Raza Imam, 77, described himself as a loyal supporter of Laloo Prasad Yadav and said he voted for the new party because its leader has helped to protect Muslims, who make up about 12 percent of India's 950 million people.

"Who isn't corrupt? The interests of (religious) minorities is more important to us," Imam said. "Nobody is totally clean, but the BJP is dangerous."

The birth of independent India was accompanied by communal clashes that killed hundreds of thousands of Hindus and Muslims, and such violence has recurred periodically in the five decades since then.

The worst violence of the current election campaign, in which nearly 100 have been killed so far, was communal in nature. Over the weekend, Islamic militants were blamed for detonating more than a dozen bombs in Coimbatore, a city of 1 million in southern Tamil Nadu state.

The first bomb exploded near the site of a BJP rally where the party's president, L.K. Advani, was late appearing. About 50 were killed in the bomb blasts, subsequent communal riots and police encounters with suspects.

The deadliest communal clashes in recent years occurred in December 1992, when about 2,500 were killed in riots across the country after the demolition of an unused mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya by Hindu nationalists who claim the site as the birthplace of their god, Ram. Several BJP leaders, including Advani, were present during the demolition and have been charged with criminal offenses.

The mosque's destruction represented the only major instance of communal violence in a half-dozen states that the Hindu nationalist party has ruled. But it brought down a BJP government in northern Uttar Pradesh state and cost the Congress party dearly, as well. Muslims, who had been an important part of the party's broad coalition, accused Congress leaders of pandering to Hindu nationalist sentiments and of not mobilizing enough central government forces to prevent the demolition. Many Muslim voters abandoned Congress and turned to regional parties.

In this election campaign, both the BJP and Congress have tried to win over Muslims. The BJP has played down its Hindu nationalist positions, made open appeals to Muslims and projected a party moderate, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as its prospective prime minister.

"Nobody really sympathizes with Muslims," Abdullah Bukhari, chief minister of New Delhi's largest mosque, said in a pessimistic pre-election sermon that did not endorse any of the three major political blocs.