About 280 million voters -- almost two-thirds of the Indian electorate -- will begin going to the polls Saturday in state legislative elections that will test Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's ability to match the landslide victory he won for the ruling Congress (I) Party in December's parliamentary elections.
Violence continued in some states despite the deployment of thousands of paramilitary forces, raising to at least 23 the number of deaths, including 11 contestants, in clashes before the polls opened. Elections have been suspended in 14 districts because of the violence.
While the two days of polling in 11 states -- involving more voters than in any other democratic election in the world -- is provincial in nature, it has national political undercurrents because of Gandhi's intense personal involvement on behalf of more than 2,500 Congress (I) candidates to state assembly seats.
The 40-year-old prime minister campaigned throughout the vast Indian Subcontinent for weeks, not only appealing to voters to elect state leadership of the same party as the central government, but also using the campaign as a platform for outlining his own agenda of national priorities.
More important, the elections will determine the outcome of a gamble the prime minister made when he purged the Congress (I) list of candidates of more than 40 percent of its sitting state legislators, including 70 state cabinet ministers, and replaced them with new, mostly young candidates. The housecleaning, which Gandhi personally supervised, was designed to weed out what he considered dead wood, and to enhance the clean image of the Congress (I) Party.
But it also created hundreds of political enemies who ran as independents, and in the unlikely event that they do well Saturday and in the second day of voting on Tuesday, it could embolden his opponents among some of the old-line leaders of the state Congress (I) Party organizations. On the other hand, if his new candidates do well, it will invest Gandhi with increased political authority.
The voting has been spread over two days because some of the participating states are so large that security forces are unable to deploy in all of the polling places at once.
The Congress (I) Party, which already is dominant in eight of the 11 voting states, is expected to win comfortable margins in all races except Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in southern India, and the tiny state of Sikkim in the far northeast. The other races are in Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and the union territory of Pondicherry.
Most attention is focused in Andhra Pradesh, where the Telegu Desam Party swept over Congress (I) in December,, and in Karnataka, where Congress (I) upset the ruling Janata Party.