INDIA, the world's most populous democracy, could best be described as a fragile mosaic perennially threatened by disintegration. On May 20, 23, and 26, its more than 400 million voters will choose a new government to deal with the country's social and political ferment. The coming general elections underscore a central paradox of Indian democracy. In this wildly heterogeneous country, elections serve to maintain the union by satisfying its disparate elements. But the democratic process also accentuates the very forces - communalism, casteism, separatism, and religious divisions - that could shatter Indian society.
The country faces armed insurrections in Punjab, Kashmir, and Assam. Political corruption is rampant at most levels of government, and politicians are given to fueling a volatile mix of caste, ethnic, and religious passion.
Amid the political debris stands the Indian voter, with a healthy skepticism toward the opportunism and sycophancy of many Indian leaders. This month's voting gives the electorate an opportunity to seize the national agenda.
For the first time since the end of the Raj, voters will have a choice among four nationally recognized candidates for prime minister. Three distinct parties will offer contrasting programs and slogans. The Congress party, which has dominated Indian politics since independence from Britain in 1947, will compete with a center-left coalition advocating social engineering to break the centuries-old caste barriers and with a right-wing party pandering to Hindu revivalism.
At stake are 543 parliamentary seats. Elections for Punjab and Assam will be held at a later date. The elections follow almost 18 months of political uncertainty and turmoil, during which three prime ministers have tried their hand at governing.
In November 1989, Rajiv Gandhi's Congress party, which enjoyed a large parliamentary majority, lost to a coalition of parties under the stewardship of Vishwanath Pratap Singh, leader of the Janata party. Last August, Mr. Singh, a scion of a princely family, attempted to resurrect a decades-old affirmative action plan to increase goverment hiring quotas for ``backward'' classes. This led to a violent backlash by upper caste Hindus.
Singh's government, dependent on the support of both communists and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, collapsed in November 1990. The government was pulled down by dissidents within the coalition. Chandra Shekhar, leader of the dissidents and current caretaker prime minister, formed a new party and took up the mantle of leadership. Mr. Shekhar surprised pundits by showing courage and intelligence. But with negligible support from the Congress party, he resigned. Shekar is considered a dark horse in the coming race.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which advocates a more sectarian society, is backed by many Hindu activists. Its leader, Lal Kishan Advani, made a pilgrimage through India last year riding atop a truck to drum up support for building a Hindu temple in Ayodhya, the site of the 16th century mosque, Babri Masjid. The Singh administration angered militant Hindus by refusing to destroy the mosque, which Hindus claim is built on the birthplace of Rama, a Hindu deity.
Also in the electoral fray are a host of regional parties that advocate state autonomy but are aligned with dominant national parties. Voters may choose to ignore promises, gimmicks, divisive appeals, and religious symbols and opt, instead, for what they perceive as stability by returning to power Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress party, the party of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Rajiv's grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Indian politicians have managed to blur the line between dissent and opportunism. It is not unusual for legislators to switch back and forth between parties - political allies turning into antagonists and foes into fellow travelers. The south Indian news daily, ``The Hindu,'' reported that in one year alone, 438 legislators in state government defected, with almost half of these defectors rewarded with ministerial or cabinet jobs.
India may be entering an era of coalition governments, fashioned more by personalities than by ideology. Given the fractious nature of Indian politics, there is scant evidence of a fruitful realignment of political forces in the country. The evidence suggests, however, that coalition politics may bring new alignments in the years ahead, but it may take several more general elections for them to take shape. Indian democracy may be entering a new phase of maturation, with voters denying any single party a n outright majority until they prove their worth.
With the diminishing of the dynastic Congress party leadership in New Delhi, competition for the country's top job could mean that leaders will be held to a tougher standard of accountability. And voters may be in a better position to control the national agenda by electing those who have shown fidelity and rejecting the opportunists and rabble rousers.