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Polls Open Thursday In India's General Election

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Renee Montagne is on assignment.

Tomorrow marks the start of the largest democratic election the world has ever seen. Thanks to its regular population increases, that is pretty much the case every single time there is an election in India. The election over the next month decides who's governing a rising global power. The soaring skyscrapers pictured in the movie "Slumdog Millionaire."

(Soundbite from the movie "Slumdog Millionaire")

Mr. AZHARUDDIN MOHAMMED ISMAIL (Actor): (as older Salim) That used to be our slum. Can you believe that, huh? Now, it's all business. India is at the center of the world now, bhai. And I, I'm at the center of the center.

INSKEEP: For the next month India's voters are at the center and NPR's Philip Reeves is there.

(Soundbite of drums)

PHILIP REEVES: Democracy in India is a noisy business. Here it's reaching a crescendo. The polls are soon to open in the South Indian state of Kerala. The candidates are doing a spot of last minute advertising. Fans with hefty loudspeakers tied onto the roofs with rope cruise the streets of Cochin, cheerfully blaring out party propaganda. Everywhere you look there seems to be a round-faced politician beaming amiably out of a poster. Some candidates have erected giant cardboard cutouts of themselves. This is how India's political parties whip up public enthusiasm. And, says writer and commentator Pamela Philipose, it works.

Ms. PAMELA PHILIPOSE (Director, Women Feature Service): People do feel enthused. And in order to reach out to people, politicians have to think out to the box. They have to think of ways to make themselves more attractive, so they bring in film stars and so on. They sometimes stage tablos, they have dancers, they use film music, they bring out the local poets who come up with good satirical verse.

REEVES: The scale of this election is breathtaking. India has more then 700 million registered voters. That's more then one in ten of the planet's population. Since the last election five years ago, that number's grown by considerably more than the population of Canada. Most people will actually vote. Professor Ashis Nandy, an author and political expert, says India has one of the highest election participation rates in the world.

Professor ASHIS NANDY (Political psychologist): And this rate goes up as we go down the social ladder because elections matter to a very large sector of Indians. It's a matter of life and death to them.

(Soundbite of song in foreign language)

REEVES: A hymn to the motherland marks the start of a rally by one of the elections key players. Lal Krishna Advani leads the Hindu nationalist BJP, the biggest opponent facing India's ruling Congress Party. Advani is a frontrunner in a pack of opposition politicians vying for the prime minister's job, currently held by Manmohan Singh. He is addressing a crowd in the hill town of Palakkad in Kerala, a state where his party has never won a seat. Some of his supporters are barefoot. Most of the men are wearing white lungis, traditional wrap around sarongs. Yet Advani's waging a modern campaign.

When you log on to the Internet from India, it's hard to avoid encountering his stern, bespectacled face. He is reaching out into cyberspace on Facebook and elsewhere. So are his rivals in the Congress Party. They are well aware that a quarter of India's electorate is under 35. Indian voters are busy on the Net too. One in five of the members of India's lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha, has criminal convictions. Now there is Web site, nocriminals.org.

(Soundbite of bell and chanting)

REEVES: A few hours drive from Advani's rally, Communist Party workers go door to door in search of votes. They are showing off a dummy electronic voting machine. In India there are no hanging chads, votes are cast electronically. Only one of the machine's buttons is marked. It shows the hammer and sickle.

Many issues are in play in this election, many of them are local. But less than five months have elapsed since militants set off from Pakistan and stormed into Mumbai on a rampage that killed more than 170 people. So, for some Indians the issue is security and how to handle neighboring Pakistan.

The global recession is also taking its toll knocking several points of India's impressive nine percent growth rate. Political analyst, Mahesh Rangarajan, thinks the economy will be the decisive factor.

Dr. MAHESH RANGARAJAN (Political analyst): The 87 percent of Indians earn less than 20 rupees a day, that's less than 40 cents a day. So if someone who works in construction labor, your business is over, your job's gone. So that, I think, will be the critical issue.

(Soundbite of TV News)

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) firstly for the Congress Party. The UPA gets 210, the NDA gets about a 160, the Left 30…

REEVES: There is still a month to go before the count, but India's TV news channels are already trying to predict the outcome. In India, with it's huge wealth and regional gaps, and it's myriad of languages and casts, that's impossible to do. All we know is that the next government is sure to be a coalition. It may be led by one of the country's two nationwide parties, Congress or the BJP; or it could be cobbled together from smaller regionally based parties, including the communists - a so-called third front.

Professor Ashis Nandy says one other thing can be said for certain about Indian elections.

Prof. ASHIS NANDY: Any person who looks at the situation empirically will come to the conclusion, that despite all aberrations, the elections do reflect the choices of the people.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Cochin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.