India Congress leads in early vote count

By Sanjeev Miglani

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's ruling Congress-led coalition led an alliance led by its Hindu nationalist rivals, early trends showed on Saturday, as counting of votes from a mammoth general election began.

No party is expected to win a clear majority forcing both the Congress led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party led by L.K.Advani to look for support from smaller groups in a possible weak coalition.

The Congress was ahead after early counting in 102 seats out of the 543 seats at stake, state TV said.

Computerised counting of votes at hundreds of centres across the country began at 0230 GMT with the results for all parliamentary seats due later in the day.

To rule, a party or a coalition requires the support of 272 members.

Analysts expect days of backroom dealings before a new government is in place and it may not even last its full five-year term at a time when India is faced with its slowest economic growth in six years and mounting instability in Pakistan.

A "Third Front" of regional and communist parties may hold the balance of power, stoking concerns that big ticket reforms such as privatisation and liberalisation of the insurance sector will remain on the backburner.

"If it is a Congress coalition with the left backing it, you can forget about any major decisions on reforms," said political commentator Prem Shankar Jha. "It will be a weak coalition, a waste of time actually."

Once the vote count concludes, the focus will fall on President Pratibha Patil who has to formally invite the party or alliance best able to provide a stable government.

Patil, TV networks said, has invited constitutional experts for consultations later on Saturday. There are no rules in the constitution on she can invite to form a government. It could either be the single largest party or the most dominant coalition.

Patil could ask the main political parties claiming power to produce documented pledges of support from partners.

"It's all very fluid. Any coalition that comes will be dependent on their constituents and to that extent there could be difficulties," said political analyst Kuldip Nayar.

About 714 million people were eligible to vote in the largest such exercise in the world staggered over a month to allow security forces and election officials to supervise.

Any new government will have to tackle the question of ties with Pakistan that have been in deep-freeze since an attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants last November.

Both the Congress and the BJP have taken broadly similar positions on Pakistan, with neither willing to give much ground until they are convinced Islamabad has prosecuted those behind the attack.

Since then the Pakistan Army, prodded by the United States, has launched an offensive against Taliban militants in the Swat valley.

The United States, which considers India to be a key part of its regional strategy to fight Islamist militants in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, is expected to lean on New Delhi to begin talks with Pakistan to help stabilise the region.

(Editing by Alistair Scrutton)

Article Published: 16/05/2009