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Scandals tar India election hopefuls

India, the world's biggest democracy, yesterday announced parliamentary elections will be held on 27 April, 2 May and 7 May, at a time when most leading political parties are enmeshed in a bribery scandal.

To stage polls in a country with more than 900 million people is so vast an exercise that election officials are staggering the event. Voting in the troubled state of Jammu-Kashmir, where Muslim separatists are in revolt, has been delayed until 21 May.

The ruling Congress party of Narasimha Rao is expected to lose its majority, but its closest rival, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is unlikely to emerge as a clear winner. India could be heading for a quarrelsome coalition government.

Many party leaders were sucked into the corruption scandal when a top industrialist confessed he had made pay-offs to officials and politicians in both Congress and the BJP. This stung the right hard, as their president, LK Advani, was crusading against the Congress government for corruption when the investigators of the bribery scandal fingered him.

Several Congress ministers were sacrificed by Mr Rao. Congress was also jolted by defections among its traditional supporters, the poor Hindus and minorities such as the Muslims and the Sikhs.

According to political experts, Mr Rao has given up the battle in northern India and is focusing his hopes on the south.