HARDWAGANJ, INDIA — IN the choking dust and searing heat of summer, India's political battle lines are drawn in this village. At one end of the paved track and open sewers that thread among rundown huts, Mehtab Khan mulls the watershed election that begins today. Like other Muslims, as well as lower-caste Hindus and casteless Indians known as untouchables, the farmer and shopkeeper backs the political left.
He says he's voting to stop the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which appeals to Hindu religious pride and nationalism. "The BJP candidates come into our area and say, why don't you go to Pakistan?" Mr. Khan says.
Just up the road, however, well-to-do, upper-caste Hindu landowners say only the Hindu right can provide a stable government.
"Things are really bad. There is fighting and no jobs," says Shankar Lal as he sits outside his prosperous brick house. "The BJP seems better. Maybe with a new government all this will stop."
Indians vote this week in a crucial election that is testing their turbulent democracy and could reshape politics on the Asian subcontinent. The three-day poll to choose India's fourth government in two years has become a referendum on the commitment of this predominantly Hindu country to secular politics and the erasing of caste distinctions - a cornerstone of its Constitution.
The key choices are encapsulated in two swing issues commonly referred to as "mandir and Mandal," says Bashiruddin Ahmed, a New Delhi political scientist.
Mandir, the Hindi word for temple, refers to the fiery dispute over a mosque in north India which Hindu fundamentalists, led by the BJP, want to pull down and replace with a temple. Hindus believe the site is the birthplace of the venerated warrior-king, Lord Rama, who has become the rallying symbol for Hindu revivalists. The controversy has ignited widespread, bloody rioting between Hindus and the large Muslim minority last fall.
Mandal is a controversial affirmative-action program (named for the judge who proposed it) which would reserve a larger percentage of government jobs for lower castes. Castes are hereditary social divisions which often dictate limits to marriage, education, and employment.
The Mandal issue brought down the government of former Prime Minister V. P. Singh last year when he backed the program.
"The mandir issue is redefining Indian nationalism," Mr. Ahmed says. "The Mandal issue deals with whether the backward castes will get their place in running the state."
The choices have put all the fractious political parties on the firing line. At the center is Rajiv Gandhi and his Congress (I) Party, which has dominated Indian politics for most of the 44 years since independence from Britain.
Mr. Gandhi, who was defeated in a 1989 election after five years in power, is vying for a political comeback against stiff challenges from the left and right. His squabble with Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar helped bring down the veteran politician earlier this year and set the stage for this week's election.
V. P. Singh and his leftist coalition are appealing to lower-caste Hindus and Muslims, traditional Congress backers.
Several opinion polls suggest that the election could produce what Indians fear most: an indecisive outcome.
Most surveys show the Congress winning the largest number of the contested 537 parliamentary seats, but not a majority. The BJP is expected to come in a strong second. The prospect of more infighting irks those who worry about deepening economic problems and lack of inspired leadership.
"There's so much poverty. Grain has gone up in price, and it's mixed with dirt. And they ask for our votes," says Jummi, an elderly villager.
Another villager, lower-caste farmer Dilip Singh, points to graves of Muslims who were killed in rioting last fall. While he can good-naturedly debate politics with his upper-caste neighbors, he admits he's worried. "These are the people who create trouble," he warns.