World's biggest democracy heads to the polls

With 1,000 parties vying for votes, everything is to play for in the Indian elections.

First came the sound of film music, muffled by the ridge of the hill. Then a convoy appeared around a bend in the road. At once, thousands of people erupted in a frenzy – waving banners, screaming, shouting, rushing towards the vehicles in a crush. Heading the cavalcade, at the front of an open-topped bus, stood a man in a white shirt, raising his hand and smiling. Chiranjeevi had come to town.

For decades, movie fans in Andhra Pradesh have known Chiranjeevi or Chiru as an on-screen legend, a southern Indian Robin Hood who took on the baddies and rescued the poor.

Today, as India begins a month-long general election – by far the biggest in the world – many in this heartland are looking to the 53-year-old who has made more than 100 movies to become a real-life hero. "We have seen how he is on the screen, now we want him to help run our country," said Ratna Manikyum, her face fixed in a huge grin despite having waited for her hero in the blistering sun for seven hours. "He must do it in real life too." In this remarkable election, in which the Indian electorate of around 714 million vote, there are more than 1,000 parties to choose from. Such is the scale that there are five separate polling days staggered over a month. And with a national result – which is likely to see the ruling Congress Party returned with the most seats – not expected until mid-May, for many voters the focus is local.

In Andhra Pradesh, where Chiru formed his People's Rule party last year and where more than 600,000 fans attended the launch rally, his chief rivals will be the Congress Party and the regional Telugu Desam Party (TDP), currently the main opposition in the state. "The Congress rule has failed in solving the problems of the common man," Chiru tells the massing throng of people that have crowded around his bus.

All around the road junction, the roofs of buildings – some completed, some still half-built – are packed with people craning their necks. People are standing on walls, on cars, on anything that affords a better view. Police with sticks try to keep the crowds back but it is a thankless task as Chiru works the crowd, running through a series of populist messages without notes. "In the last five years more than 1,000 schools have closed in the state, there is no health care," he declares. "Andhra Pradesh has become a den for criminals. During the last five years there has been wholesale corruption."

Not everyone here on the outskirts of the city of Hyderabad – which votes in today's first phase – believes that Chiru can bring about change. Several residents point out that while they like his films, Chiru has no experience as a politician. Some polls suggest the best his party can expect is one or two MPs from across the state, though he is much more optimistic.

But the majority of people here appear to believe that his good intentions – evidenced, they say, by the blood banks that the star has long operated – will be sufficient. "I'm supporting him because he's new," said Jaganiah, a 34-year-old estate agent. This is an appealing characteristic in a country where alleged corruption is a constant criticism made of politicians of all parties. "I'm 100 per cent confident that he will do something for the people. People say he does not have experience but you are not born with experience, it is something that grows."

At a national level, many analysts believe the Congress Party – headed by Sonia Gandhi, the widow of the assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi; and the current premier Manmohan Singh – will do enough to see off the challenge from its main rival, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Yet it also faces stiff competition from a so-called third front made up of left-leaning parties and the so-called Dalit Queen, Mayawati, who heads a low-caste party that has its stronghold in the state of Uttar Pradesh, politically India's most important state. Some believe Mayawati could yet emerge as India's next prime minister.

Chiru, meanwhile, could be part of a fourth front made up of other regional parties that have recently broken from the Congress Party, having failed to secure a pre-poll agreement. Sitting on his bus having finished his speech in Ibrahimpatnam, a bottle of milk at his feet and a hairbrush and mirror to hand, Chiru says this new alliance is real possibility, but says he doesn't want to become prime minister.

Pundits predict that whichever single party emerges with the most votes, it will be forced to make a coalition to form a government. This time around, there have been few pre-poll alliances, with most parties opting to see how they stand in a month's time when all the voting is over.

During the past 30 years, Chiru says, he has received love and affection from the people who had gone to see his films. Now it is time to repay them. As a sign of his dedication to bettering them, he has retired from the day job and will concentrate solely on politics. "They need change," he said of his potential voters. "They need someone who can deliver what they want." With that, the music – the theme tune from one of Chiru's most popular movies – starts up and he is off to the next town.

The Indian elections: Everything you need to know

*Just how big is the world's largest election? There are more than 714 million voters, 800,000 polling booths and 6 million police officers trying to keep order. Voting is held over five separate days between now and 13 May.

*Who are the major players? The centrist Congress Party, which has led a coalition government for the past five years, is looking to hold off a challenge from the right-wing, Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. The contest pits Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 76, against LK Advani, 81.

* What's the likely outcome? It is expected to be a close contest with results not announced until after 16 May. Most polls suggest Congress will get the most seats of any single party. What will be crucial is the post-election alliances that the parties scramble to make once voting is over.

* Are there any other possible scenarios? Mayawati, pictured, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which gets much of its support from Dalits or untouchables, could end up as the leader of a so-called "Third Front", an alliance of Communist and left-leaning parties. She is ambitious and her party is fielding candidates in each of the 543 constituencies.

*What are the most important issues to voters? Ordinary Indians are concerned about the national economy and whether the government is doing enough to help those at the bottom of the pile. In the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, many people, especially urban Indians, are most concerned with security.

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