, NEW DELHI, May 13 – India voters cast their final ballots Wednesday in the country’s marathon elections, with analysts predicting a shaky coalition government that will struggle to survive a full term.
Polling stations opened across seven states for the fifth and final phase of voting in the world’s largest democratic exercise that began way back on April 16.
The first exit polls — banned during the staggered voting process — are expected hours after polling closes, although the official result will be announced by the Election Commission only on Saturday.
Neither the ruling alliance led by the Congress party, nor the main opposition bloc headed by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seen as capable of securing an absolute majority.
Saturday’s results are therefore expected to trigger a frantic round of political horse-trading as the two main blocs scrabble for new partners among a multitude of regional parties — all with their own local agendas.
"Everything will depend on numbers," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acknowledged at a press briefing Monday.
Whatever formation emerges with enough seats to govern India’s 1.1 billion people, observers say it will most likely be an unwieldy coalition that will struggle to project a united front at a time when India is facing a sharp economic downturn and numerous foreign policy challenges.
"There is an absence of national leaders who are able to project the issues and enthuse people. There are no towering personalities to set an agenda for the nation," said political analyst Neerja Chowdhury.
"Usually the party that emerges as the single largest is likely to form the government. But there is no guarantee this will happen," Chowdhury said.
"Given the way the polity is divided and fractured, the grand prize is far away."
In recent days, Congress leaders have made repeated overtures to the party’s former communist partners, who withdrew their support from the ruling coalition last year in protest at the signing of a nuclear pact with the United States.
Playing on the image of the BJP as a communally divisive party, Singh said all secular forces had an obligation to work together to keep the Hindu nationalists out of government.
The BJP’s candidate for Prime Minister, L.K. Advani, insisted that early divisions within the opposition alliance had been more than compensated by the support of new partners.
"If we have lost one ally, we have gained five," he told a rally.
The only realistic option to the two main rivals would be a "Third Front" grouping of regional parties, but observers say they would be hard pushed to pull together the 272 seats needed to command a parliamentary majority.
The election comes at a pivotal time for India and its 714-million strong electorate.
After five successive years of near-double digit growth that lent the country the international clout it has long sought, the economy has been badly hit by the global downturn.
And there are major security concerns over growing instability in the South Asia region, particularly arch-rival Pakistan, with whom relations plunged to a new low following last year’s bloody militant attack on Mumbai.
For the more pessimistic analysts, these elections will provide little more than a stop-gap coalition that will fall under the weight of its multiple constituents.
"Whatever is coming is not likely to last more than two years," said Yashwant Deshmukh, head of the C-Voter polling agency.
"In a way, these polls are being seen as the semi-finals with the finals expected soon," Deshmukh said.
One race attracting particular attention on Wednesday was in Baramulla in Indian Kashmir where Sajad Lone is the first Kashmiri separatist leader to contest an election since an armed insurgency against Indian rule erupted in 1989.
Lone broke ranks with the separatist movement, which has a long-standing policy of boycotting all elections in the Muslim-majority region.