Indians begin voting in epic elections

Indian election officials check electronic voting machines prior to Wednesday's vote.
India begins voting Thursday to choose a new government in a mammoth exercise covering more than three million square kilometers of the planet in scattered polling until next month.

India currently has 714 million registered voters, up 43 million from the last vote. That election, in 2004, brought the Congress party of Italian-born Sonia Gandhi to power as head of a coalition backed by the communists. More than 1,700 candidates will be in the fray for the first phase of voting Thursday, in 124 of the 543 boroughs, for the Lok Sabha, or the lower house of the Indian parliament, according to the country’s election commission. Two million security personnel are to guard the entire voting process, the commission said. Political analysts expect post-poll agreements among various groups from the right, left and center — rather than national divisions over any particular issues — to determine the shape and make up of the next governing coalition. The Congress party, which currently leads the United Progressive Alliance government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, seeks to retain the power it won in 2004. But some allies of the United Progressive Alliance have already reached a pre-poll agreement, to the exclusion of Congress. A general election is held every five years in India. The vote count, which will be carried out electronically in a single day, is scheduled for May 16, three days after the last round of polling. The nation of one billion-plus people will vote in five phases.