Chief Election Commissioner V.S. Sampath said 814 million people
had registered to vote, a number larger than the population of
Europe, making this the biggest election the world has ever seen.
Results are due to be announced on May 16.
Voting will be held in nine stages, staggered until May 12, to allow
security forces to be effectively deployed during an exercise that
has often been marred by violence, ballot-rigging and buying votes.
"Credible elections conducted at regular, prescribed intervals are
the very soul, or hallmark, of any democratic system," Sampath said,
adding that he was particularly concerned about over-spending by
candidates and parties.
"The use of money power is a matter of concern for the election
commission," he said. Indian politicians frequently spend well
beyond permissible limits, set at a maximum of 7 million rupees
($113,000) for most constituencies, and clampdowns by "flying
squads" in previous polls have yielded suitcases of cash.
Since the last national election in 2009, about 100 million people
have been added to the electoral rolls, in part reflecting the
country's growing young population.
Modi has emerged in opinion polls as the favorite to head the next
government, buoyed by his strong economic track record as chief
minister of the state of Gujarat and reflecting popular anger over
corruption as well as a sense that the center-left Congress
government has frittered away opportunities for rapid growth.
Exuding self-confidence, Modi has won the support of many
middle-class Indians who even a year ago would not have voted for a
man accused by critics of failing to stop, or even tacitly
encouraging, a spasm of Hindu-Muslim bloodshed in Gujarat in 2002.
Modi has denied any wrongdoing and the Supreme Court has said there
is not enough evidence to pursue investigations.
"I think everyone is looking for strong leadership. This places Modi
at an advantage. He's showing that he's a strong leader," said Mohan
Guruswamy of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Delhi-based
With half of India's population under 25, a record number of
first-time voters will participate in the election. Many appear open
to Modi's promises of job creation and efficient government.
"There was so much corruption with Congress, scam after scam," said
Ravinder, a 19 year-old business administration student attending a
Modi rally in the heartland state of Uttar Pradesh on Sunday. "Now
we see hope, there is someone talking about development, and he
However, India's fragmented political landscape and
first-past-the-post system for parliamentary seats makes results
notoriously hard to predict, and that means a victory is by no means
assured for Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Recent polls show the BJP well short of a majority of the 543 lower
house of parliament seats at stake, but widening its lead over
Congress, which has ruled for more than two-thirds of the 67 years
since independence but may now be headed for its worst-ever
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A multi-headed group of regional parties is also eyeing power,
however, a reflection of the growing clout of state-based leaders. A
'third front' government made up of regional groups with diverse
agendas could prove unwieldy, a potential problem for Asia's
third-largest economy, whose growth has skidded due to the slow pace
of reform on the Congress party's watch.
Leading the campaign for the Congress party is Rahul Gandhi, the
latest in line in the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has given India
three prime ministers and its most powerful contemporary politician,
his mother, Sonia Gandhi.
This time, after two consecutive Congress-led governments headed by
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India seems unlikely to make another
Gandhi prime minister.
Adding to the uncertainty, a new anti-corruption party has emerged
as a serious player. The Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party is not likely
to win many seats, but is setting the agenda for other parties by
harping on high utility prices and crony capitalism.
The election comes as the economy is on course to grow at below five
percent for the second year running, which would be the worst
performance since the 1980s for a country that a few years ago was
confident of matching China's run of double-digit expansion.
Modi has the backing of big business, which wants him to replicate
his Gujarat state model of good roads, 24/7 electricity and less red
tape. Last week, he promised to simplify laws if elected, and to put
trade at the heart of foreign policy.
As the election drumbeats get louder, overseas investors have
extended a buying streak of Indian shares, total ling $800 million
in a run of 13 sessions until Tuesday.
Businesses have put investment plans on hold ahead of the elections,
leading to a contraction in capital formation and worsening a
slowdown that could, however, be reversed after results are declared
"Irrespective of who wins, pent-up demand is set to be released
after the elections are over," HSBC said in a research note.
"Companies that have shelved expansion plans will at some point
start investing and hiring."
(Additional reporting by Sruthi Gottipati and Malini Menon in New
Delhi; Abhishek Vishnoi in Mumbai; editing by John Chalmers and Raju
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