NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The Indian government launched a $22 billion welfare program on Wednesday to give cheap food to hundreds of millions of people, a center-piece of the ruling Congress party's plan to win a third term in office in elections due by May 2014.

The minority government sidestepped India's unruly parliament and resorted to an executive order to implement the program, local media said, in a move the party believes will help it take credit for a vote-winning plan.

(Reporting By Frank Jack Daniel)