Some 815 million people are registered to vote over the next five
weeks as the election spreads out in stages from two small states
near Myanmar to include northern Himalayan plateaus, western deserts
and the tropical south, before ending in the densely-populated
northern plains. Results are due on May 16.
Elderly women in saris and young men in jeans and polo shirts lined
up outside a dilapidated sports center before voting started on a
cool morning in Dibrugarh, a river town in the tea-growing state of
Assam, one of two states to vote on Monday.
"We need a change, someone who will come and change the whole
scenario," said handbag shop manager Ashim Sarkar, 35, lining up
soon after voting started at 7.00 a.m. (9.30 p.m. ET Sunday).
During high-octane campaigning at well attended rallies the length
and breadth of India, Modi has been promising just that change — to
jumpstart a flagging economy and sweep out the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty
that has ruled India for most of the period since independence in
Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and allies are forecast to win
the biggest chunk of the 543 parliamentary seats up for grabs, but
fall shy of a majority, according to a survey released this week by
respected Indian pollsters CSDS. In such a situation, a coalition
government led by the BJP is seen as the most likely outcome.
An efficient administrator, Modi is loved by big business in a
country tangled in red tape. But he is tainted by accusations that
he failed to stop or even encouraged anti-Muslim riots in 2002 in
the state of Gujarat, where he is chief minister. At least 1,000
people died in the violence, most of them Muslims.
Modi has denied the charges and a Supreme Court inquiry found no
evidence to prosecute him.
DEFEAT FOR CONGRESS
Surveys show a resounding defeat awaits the ruling Congress party,
led by Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, after the longest economic
slowdown since the 1980s put the brakes on development and job
creation in a country where half of the population is under 25 years
India's remote northeast, a lush but underdeveloped border region of
eight states home to just 27.4 million voters, is a test case for
the appeal of Modi's promises to fill India with new highways and
fast trains and to take a tough line on frontier disputes with
neighbors. China claims sections of the region.
[to top of second column]
"Young people can't find good work here — the jobs available are
just about picking tea leaves," said Jyotirmoy Sharma, a manager at
a tea factory who lives in Lahoal village near Dibrugarh. He voted
for the ruling Congress party in India's last two national elections
in 2004 and 2009 but will switch to Modi this time.
Northeastern India is one of the few remaining strongholds for
Congress. The CSDS poll found that almost half of voters in Assam,
who have one of the country's lowest per capita incomes and often
still rely on the center-left Congress' welfare schemes, are set to
support the party.
Among residents working as casual tea pickers on plantations around
Dibrugarh, many had not heard of Modi.
The debate in New Delhi is focused on whether Modi can win enough
seats to secure a stable coalition with India's increasingly
powerful regional parties and push through promised reforms.
India's diverse electorate and parliamentary system mean that local
leaders — and local issues such as their caste or ethnic group — still hold great sway. In some constituencies this could stymie the
BJP, which has run a presidential-style campaign focused wholly on
"I vote for the local candidate — that is who affects my life," said
Shanti Naik, a woman selling biscuits and shampoo sachets at a stall
in Lahoal who said she planned to vote for Congress. "Whoever is in
Delhi, it doesn't bother me."
(Additional reporting by Biswajyoti Das,
editing by Frank Jack
Daniel and Michael Perry)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.