The values of India's founding fathers - secularism, socialism and a casteless society - are being put to the test in parliamentary elections this week.

Voters will chose India's fourth government in 19 months, climaxing one of the most politically turbulent periods since independence in 1947.There are half a billion eligible voters, making the election the largest exercise in democracy the world has ever seen. Indian elections are almost always violent, and campaign clashes have claimed nearly 100 lives since March.

Voting in about 600,000 polling stations will be staggered over three days - Monday, Thursday and next Sunday - so that millions of police and troops can be shifted to likely areas of violence. Complete results are not expected until May 28.

"No previous general election has aroused so little enthusiasm in the people or so much dread," said Prem Shankar Jha, an economic journalist and former government spokesman. The issues "touch the very core of India's nationhood."

There are 8,954 candidates running for seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha, the lawmaking lower house of Parliament.

Many have conducted old-style whistle-stop campaigns through towns and hamlets. More than two out of three Indians live in villages, and one in two can't read, which makes personal contact crucial.

Polls published on the eve of the voting predict the Congress Party of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi will win the most seats but fall short of a majority.

The party is facing a strong challenge from the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has moved from the fringes of politics to emerge as No. 2.

Bharatiya Janata is riding a wave of revitalized Hindu pride - and tapping resentment against India's Muslim minority.

About 82 percent of India's 844 million people are Hindus, and 12 percent are Muslims. Still, many voters remain undecided. Apathy and frustration with politicians is evident.

"All they say is lies," said Bhoop Singh, a middle-aged farmer in Sanoli, a village of 2,000 people about 68 miles from New Delhi. "They have no honor, no purpose, and once the election is over they are not willing to meet us."

Since the last election in November 1989, India has had two short-lived minority governments, each governing with the tacit support of other parties.

Experts say a coalition government, in which two or more parties would share power and government posts, is almost inevitable this time. It would be a first for India.

One minority government was led by V.P. Singh of the Janata Dal party, and one by the incumbent, Chandra Shekhar, who led a breakaway faction of Janata Dal. Neither government was strong enough for decisive action. Both succumbed to internal squabbling and personality clashes.