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What terrorist threat? In Indian elections, local issues dominate.

Voters head to the polls this week in staggered nationwide elections.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 14, 2009

Workers pack Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) at an election office in Mumbai, India, on Tuesday. India will hold the first stage of its general elections on Thursday.

Arko Datta/Reuters

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New Delhi

All politics may be local, but India is taking the notion to an extreme: Voters this week head into national elections with no national issues dominating campaigns. In the world's largest democracy, many will choose members of parliament more for their attention to potholes down the street than to Pakistan.

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That's surprising given recent events here. A major terrorist attack on Mumbai exposed police and intelligence failures less than half a year ago. Neighboring Pakistan is caught in an Islamist insurgency. And a global recession is clipping India's economic growth.

Yet none of this appears to have galvanized voters. Even the jailing of a scion of the prominent Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty for a Muslim-baiting speech has failed to generate much Hindu-nationalist energy. Pollsters say voters seem more concerned with local development, such as the condition of a school, the expansion of a nearby road, or more continuous electricity.

What does it mean for the world's largest democracy that voters care more about local than national issues? For starters, the election, which ends on May 13, could result in a weak – and perhaps short-lived – coalition government.

"It's like a ship without a rudder. There is no one guiding the country as a whole in its relations with other countries, or with problems that transcend national boundaries of India, or come from outside," says Prem Shankar Jha, a senior political analyst senior political analyst and a columnist for the Deccan Herald.

What matters? New bridges, buses

Yet he and others also see a positive move by voters toward holding politicians accountable and away from appeals to jingoism or communal politics – even if that muddies any national mandate for the central government.

"What's changed in the last five years is we've had it up to our noses with [politicians] demanding loyalty for who they are – we want them to perform," says Mr. Jha.

"Performance" means being accessible and taking action on local affairs, according to polling done by the Hindustan Times, a leading English-language daily. Nearly half of voters polled listed development and area-specific issues as top issues, with only 21 percent citing the economic downturn and 14 percent saying terrorism.

In a country so immense and diverse, and with so many people struggling for basic needs, local concerns can be very narrow indeed. Yashwant Deshmukh, a pollster with the CVoter Foundation, puts it this way: A voter in New Delhi may notice some new bridges and mass transit around the city and decide to reward the party in local power – or, if the new metro causes his dwelling to shake, punish that party.

A kaleidoscope of political parties

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