Indians line up for election marathon

NEW DELHI, April 15, 2009 (AFP) – India braced Wednesday for marathon elections expected to throw up an unstable coalition government at a time when the country needs strong leadership to pull through an economic downturn.

Neither of the two main national parties — the incumbent Congress and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — is seen as capable of securing an absolute majority in the five-stage polls beginning Thursday.

With a myriad other parties expected to grab up to 50 percent of the 543 parliamentary seats on offer, the final result will kick off an intense period of political horse-trading as the big players rush to form a working coalition.

“At the moment, Congress seems to have the advantage as more parties appear willing to do business with it,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, a professor at Delhi University.

“But if the Congress party falls short of 135 seats on its own, then finding partners will be difficult. I wouldn’t say it’s wide open but it’s certainly an open situation.”

Thursday’s first phase of voting will take in large swathes of northern and eastern India, including areas beset by a range of violent insurgencies involving tribal rebels, Maoist guerrillas and Muslim