Instability at the helm, though, doesn’t threaten the broad economic-reformist policy consensus that has survived India’s electoral turmoil of the '90s. "The country isn’t going to change direction as a result of this election, because there are no major policy disputes," says Rahman. "The prime campaign themes are Kashmir and Sonia Gandhi’s origins." Congress has relied on Mrs. Gandhi, the widow of slain prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, to revive its fortunes by evoking the cachet of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty that has governed India for most of its five decades of independence. But the BJP has relentlessly pounded the drums of patriotism against the claims of a foreign-born Gandhi. And just in case that challenge resonates with too many voters, Congress has taken the precaution — permissible under Indian law — of registering Mrs. Gandhi as a candidate in two different states. Now that’s a trick Hillary Rodham Clinton might wish she could try.
Good thing there are no serious issues at stake in India’s election, because an election would be unlikely to settle them. The world’s largest democracy begins voting Sunday for the third time in as many years, in a month-long balloting process involving 600 million voters. But the poll looks unlikely to break the stalemate that began in the early '90s when support for all-India parties began to decline at the expense of a dizzying array of regional and parochial competitors, forcing the big parties into shaky coalitions. The recent military success in Kashmir has given the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a flying start in its bid to hold off the challenge of the Congress Party’s Sonia Gandhi, whose Italian birth is being made a prime campaign issue by the nationalist BJP. "Congress is unlikely to come to power, but the BJP might also fail to win enough seats to form a government themselves," says TIME New Delhi correspondent Maseeh Rahman. "That would leave the field open, once again, to some of the smaller parties to define the shape of the next government."