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India voters kick off world’s biggest election

By AFP - Apr 07,2014 - Last updated at Apr 07,2014

DIBRUGARH, India — Indians began voting Monday in the world’s biggest election, which is set to sweep the Hindu nationalist opposition to power at a time of low growth, anger over corruption and warnings about religious unrest.

The 814-million-strong electorate is forecast to inflict a heavy defeat on the Congress Party which has ruled for 10 years and elect hardliner Narendra Modi from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Voting began at 7:00am (0130 GMT) in six constituencies in tea-growing and insurgency-racked areas of the northeast.

“I want the government to reduce poverty and do something for the future of my children,” said 30-year-old tea plantation worker Santoshi Bhumej at a polling station in Dibrugarh in the state of Assam.

Men and women were packed tightly into separate queues when polls opened, shuffling slowly into tightly guarded booths to press the button for their candidates on electronic voting machines.

The marathon contest, to be held over nine phases until May 12, got under way after a bad-tempered campaign which reached new levels of bitterness at the weekend.

Religious tensions, an undercurrent to the contest which has mostly focused on development until now, burst into the open on Friday when the closest aide of Modi was accused of incitement.

Amit Shah faces a judicial investigation after he reportedly told supporters to see the election as “revenge” against a “government that protects and gives compensation to those who killed Hindus”.

Rahul Gandhi, leading Congress into his first national election as scion of the famous dynasty, said Sunday a victory for Modi threatens India’s religious fabric.

“Wherever these people [the opposition BJP] go they create fights. They’ll pit Hindus and Muslims against each other,” he said.

The BJP said talk of “revenge” was normal ahead of an election and the other remarks were taken out of context.

Prime ministerial front-runner Modi, the hawkish son of a tea seller whose rise has split his party, is a polarising figure due to his alleged links to anti-Muslim riots in 2002.

Releasing the party’s delayed manifesto on Monday, which mixed promises for economic development and the protection of Hindu interests, Modi promised to improve the national mood.

“Today the country has become stagnant. It is drowned in pessimism. It needs momentum to move forward,” he said.

He has urged voters to give him a majority in the 543-seat parliament, in defiance of surveys which repeatedly show the BJP will need coalition partners when results are published on May 16.

 

Disgruntled voters 

 

In Assam, a Congress stronghold, some disgruntled voters told AFP they had been swayed by his promises of better infrastructure, strong leadership, jobs and a clean administration.

“I believe that Modi will give us a corruption-free government,” Deepa Borgohain told AFP as she complained bitterly about price rises during Congress’s rule.

Over the last decade, growth has averaged 7.6 per cent per year, yet inflation has also been high, and a sharp economic slowdown since 2012 has crippled the public finances and led investment to crash.

Coupled with a widespread perception that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second term was largely lost to indecision and scandal, Modi has tapped into a groundswell of discontent.

The election will be the biggest in history and is a mind-boggling feat of organisation as voters travel to nearly a million polling stations.

In 2009, officials walked for four days through snow to deliver voting machines in the Himalayas, while yaks, camels and even elephants were pressed into service elsewhere in the vast country.

Such is India’s population growth that 100 million people have joined the electoral rolls since the last vote five years ago. More than half of the country is aged under 25.

Modi, 20 years older than Gandhi at 63, is still expected to score strongly among the young thanks to his message of aspiration and skills over the left-leaning Congress’s pitch of welfare and fair development.

“He [Rahul Gandhi] was born with a golden spoon whereas I grew up selling tea on railway platforms. He has a well-known lineage whereas I am honest,” Modi told a campaign rally Monday.

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