Narendra Modi, the prime-ministerial candidate of the opposition
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been wooing voters with promises
to rescue India from its slowest economic growth in a decade and
create jobs for its booming young population.
In the latest large opinion poll, the BJP and its allies were
forecast to win a narrow majority in the 543-seat lower house of
parliament, compared to previous surveys predicting that they would
Yet a decision by the Election Commission to reprimand a senior Modi
aide for making speeches deemed to stir tensions with minority
Muslims underlined critics' assertions that the party is a divisive
Voting took place in 120 constituencies across 12 states, from the
fractious Himalayan region of Jammu and Kashmir — where election
materials had to be airlifted to some remote polling stations — to
the lush southern state of Karnataka whose capital is the IT and
outsourcing hub Bangalore.
The world's biggest ever election is taking place in nine stages
from April 7 to May 12, with results due on May 16.
"We want Modi to win this time. That's why we are here early in the
morning, doing our best for him," said Preetham Prabhu, a
32-year-old software engineer who was the first to cast his vote in
a polling station in a residential suburb of Bangalore.
Modi's image remains tarnished by Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat, the
western state where he is chief minister, on his watch 12 years ago.
More than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in the
Modi denies accusations that he failed to stop the riots and a
Supreme Court inquiry found he had no case to answer. In an
interview with ANI television news on Wednesday, Modi accused
reporters of smearing him over the riots.
"People have forgotten what Modi did to people of this country. I
think saving people's lives is more important than development,"
said Shafina Khan, a 21-year-old Muslim teacher in Kamshet, a
village surrounded by sugarcane fields in the large western state of
Khan had just cast a vote for the Nationalist Congress Party, a
Congress ally, in a polling station set up in a government school.
Election authorities on Wednesday issued an order rebuking Amit
Shah, who runs the BJP's campaign in Uttar Pradesh, India's most
populous state and a key political battleground, over his speeches.
"The Election Commission is the supreme body and I abide by its
decision," Shah said on his Twitter account after the order.
The commission last week banned Shah from election rallies and
meetings. The latest order did not mention the ban, or what new
restrictions might now be sought.
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TECH BILLIONAIRES AND ESTRANGED COUSINS
The Congress party, led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, is forecast to
suffer its worst-ever defeat after a decade in power due to public
anger over the economic slowdown, high inflation and a string of
graft scandals. The party has ruled India for more than 50 of its 67
years of independence.
Congress has struggled in recent days with a former media adviser
and a former coal secretary both releasing books that paint Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh as a well-intentioned but weak figure who
answers only to party president Sonia Gandhi.
"It's only a dynasty, like previously we had kings ruling," said
P.V. Padmanabhan, a 79-year-old retired electricity board official
who has voted in every Indian election, and was lining up to vote at
the eastern Bangalore polling station.
"They have to give it to somebody else. (Leaders) should not only
come from Nehru's family."
Indian elections are notoriously hard to forecast due to the
country's diverse electorate and parliamentary system in which local
candidates hold great sway. Opinion polls wrongly predicted a
victory for a BJP-led alliance in elections in 2004 and
underestimated Congress's winning margin in 2009.
Thursday's parliamentary candidates range from IT billionaire and
Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, running for Congress in
Bangalore, to Maneka Gandhi, an estranged member of the Nehru-Gandhi
dynasty standing for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh.
Voter turnout has been 68 percent on average in the 111
constituencies that have voted so far, according to the Election
Commission, a sharp rise on 60 percent in the same constituencies
and 58 percent nationally in 2009.
"It is because of the people's unrest against the establishment. It
is the anti-incumbency," Nitin Gadkari, a BJP leader and the party's
former president, told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Nandita Bose in Kamshet, Jatindra Dash in
Bhubaneshwar, Sharat Pradhan in Lucknow, Fayaz Bukhari in Srinagar,
Rohit T.K. in Bangalore and Aditya Kalra in New Delhi; writing by Shyamantha Asokan;
editing by Douglas Busvine and Nick Macfie)
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