But the month-long election is widely expected to result in a shaky coalition government, as it deals with the global economic downturn.
Yesterday’s voting was the first of five phases in which 714 million people will be eligible to cast ballots.
The first polling includes central and eastern states battered by attacks by Maoist militants, leading to the deployment of tens of thousands of soldiers and police. The Maoist guerrillas, known as Naxalities, have fought the government for decades in a handful of rural regions, accusing authorities with plundering natural resources while providing little to residents.
Since Saturday, more than a dozen police officers have died in the attacks.
With more than 1.2 billion citizens, India normally holds staggered elections for logistic and security reasons.
Results from 828,804 polling stations are expected today.
In a nation of nearly 1.2 billion people long accustomed to divisions — of region, religion and caste — there has been little in the campaign to knit the country together. Instead, most campaigning has focused on local issues, whether promises of clean water in arid northern regions or free colour TVs in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.
Polls indicate neither the governing Congress party nor the main opposition, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, will win enough seats in the 543-seat lower house of parliament to rule on their own. That means whichever party gets the most votes will probably have to cobble together a coalition out of dozens of smaller parties, many focused on single, regional issues.
“The issues are there, the economy is a big issue, but the parties are not addressing them,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, a political analyst in New Delhi.
“There is a paucity of ideas... The national leaders are cut off from the ground, from the people.”
Congress, which is ending a five-year stint in power, has seen its main achievement — India’s spectacular economic growth, which has averaged more than 8% in recent years — hit by the global economic crisis. It has also faced severe criticism for its bungled response to the Mumbai terror attack in November, when 10 gunmen laid siege to the city for three days, killing 166 people.
The BJP, meanwhile, has been hampered by an ageing, fractured leadership and accusations that it has stoked tensions between India’s Hindu majority and large Muslim minority.
The lack of national issues has opened the door for regional and caste-based parties to claim some of the support traditionally given to the two national parties. Several have united to form an alliance, known as the Third Front, trying to position itself as an alternative.
Best known among them is a party headed by a powerful low-caste politician named Mayawati. She is a Dalit, or “untouchable”, the social outcasts at the bottom of the caste system.
Mayawati has become a hero to many low-caste voters but is seen as coarse and corrupt by the Indian establishment. She has made clear her ambition to be India’s next prime minister and her Bahujan Samaj Party has emerged as a major force in Indian politics, winning control of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.