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Castes vote

India | The Christian minority in India hopes for change in the upcoming elections following last year's violence

Praful Mallick isn't hopeful about India's upcoming elections. More than eight months after Hindu nationalists led violent campaigns against Christians in the country's central state of Orissa, Mallick still lives with 43 other Christian families in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of a small Orissa town.

Fear of more violence keeps these Christians-and scores of others scattered throughout the region - from returning to the homes they fled during persecution-driven riots. Mallick says he doesn't think political change would ease their plight. "There are peace committees," he told the BBC. "But the peace committees are full of the people who led the riots. What difference is that going to make?"

Others are more anxious about political tides: On the eve of India's general elections, Indians from every region, caste, and political party are waiting to see what changes the elections could bring to the world's largest democracy. And religious freedom advocates are waiting to see what changes could come for the persecuted minorities in the largest Hindu nation in the world.

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They'll all need patience: The massive undertaking will last a month, with officials staggering elections over five dates, beginning April 16 and ending May 13. Results are due May 16. Some 714 million voters are eligible to vote at more than 800,000 polling stations. Officials expect as many as 400 million to vote.

Two major coalitions made up of several parties will compete for power: The United Progressive Alliance has been in power for the last five years, and its leading party is the Congress. The National Democratic Alliance forms the opposition, and its leading party is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist party accused of inflicting violence and persecution on both Christians and Muslims in India's northern regions.

Neither alliance has grabbed a significant lead ahead of elections, and both groups are feeling pressure from a so-called "Third Front" alliance made up of regional parties scattered throughout the country. If neither the Congress or BJP wins a clear majority, the groups may seek support from the Third Front or other unaffiliated parties to gain more control. Such a fractured approach means the winning coalition will likely be weak, and that accomplishing long-range goals would be more complicated for the government.

Like the rest of the world, much of India's elections will hinge on a central concern: the economy. While the nation has enjoyed soaring economic growth in recent years, India hasn't been immune to the worldwide financial downturn. And members of the opposition parties say any wealth gained hasn't made its way to the poorest in Indian society.

Another dominating issue for Indians: security. After the deadly Mumbai terrorist attacks in November, the Congress party faces criticism for its effectiveness in dealing with terrorism. Both parties will try to convince voters they are most competent to keep the country safe.

Religious rights advocates have their eye on another issue: freedom for millions of religious minorities. Activists at Jubilee Campaign - a D.C.-based religious rights organization - are particularly concerned about election outcomes in the state of Orissa. The organization estimates that Hindu-led violence in Orissa last August drove more than 50,000 Christians from their homes, killed at least 60 people, and left tens of thousands wounded in refugee camps.

Gospel for Asia (GFA), a missions organization with hundreds of churches in India, regularly reports persecution and violence against their indigenous Christian workers in Orissa and elsewhere. The group says Hindu extremists have damaged or destroyed dozens of GFA church buildings in Orissa over the last six months, along with whole villages populated by Christians.

At least part of Hindu violence against Christians stems from their opposition to Christian ministry to Dalits - also known as " the untouchables" - the lowest group in the Indian caste system. Hindu extremists view Christian help for Dalits as a threat to their own power. Indian police and other government officials have often ignored Christian persecution, and at least five states have passed anti-conversion laws.

Ann Buwalda of Jubilee Campaign asks Christians to pray that elections results will offer more protection for Christians, particularly in Orissa, and that anti-Christian leaders would be replaced: "The violence still continues in several Indian states, but Orissa is the hotspot where the 2009 elections have the potential to make a great difference in the lives of Indian Christians."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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