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

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    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.
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    People line up to enter an election rally in Vijaypur, India, on Tuesday. Voters this week head into national elections with no national issues taking hold.
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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.

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.

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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

These local-issue votes – pouring in from a 714 million person electorate spanning seven major religions and 20 official languages – are not expected to add up to an outright majority for one party. Though the ruling Congress Party may win a plurality of votes, it's not guaranteed to keep its top spot. The fractured electorate means many small parties and politicians could secure enough votes to become coalition kingmakers.

One possible kingmaker is Kumari Mayawati, who's added spice to the election in her outsider's bid to become the nation's first Dalit – or bottom-rung caste – prime minister.

Otherwise, the campaigns have failed to generate much excitement. Manmohan Singh and LK Advani – the elderly prime ministerial candidates from the ruling Congress party and the BJP, respectively – have spent decades on the Indian political scene.

"Other than that, what's happening? Nothing. Two very old people are battling it out," says Mr. Deshmukh.

He's not alone in his lack of enthusiasm. More Indians are expected to tune into an upcoming cricket championship than the election coverage, including the night that votes are counted on May 16, according to studies by two media buying companies.

Voters have even given low priority to terrorism and national security despite suffering an attack in Mumbai that some have called "India's 9/11."

Analysts point out that India has borne terrorist attacks for decades and tends not to see one party as more competent in responding. Fatigue with communal religious struggles also seems to be high, dampening the domestic aftershocks from Mumbai. Deshmukh suggests this had to do with the response of the Muslim community in Mumbai – it clearly denounced the attacks and refused to bury the terrorists in local Muslim cemeteries.

No 'Slumdog Millionaire' victory here

Attempts by the major parties to reach outside politics to galvanize voters haven't garnered much mileage, either. Congress have latched on to the child actors in the Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire, while the BJP churned out pen-holders in the shape of the Nano – the new $2,000 car that's the pride of India.

The weakness of top-down, imposed notions of what should bind the nation together doesn't bother Rajeev Bhargava, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. The fact that no single party can take charge and different coalitions must come together does reflect how India is becoming a "fractured society," he says. But that doesn't mean secession, just a more bottom-up approach to national participation.

"What we are witnessing is a change in the way that the whole nation is conceived," says Mr. Bhargava. "In the past it's something that's been largely imagined by a small group of people in the hope it will percolate downwards. What is happening now is a nationalism that is developing from multiple regions and multiple centers."

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