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India heads to polls in single largest day of voting

© afp

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-04-17

India holds its single biggest day of voting on Thursday in a five-week-long election that pits the ruling Congress party against opposition Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

More than 195 million people are eligible to vote Thursday in 121 constituencies across a dozen states in India, where a total of 815 million voters are registered to cast ballots in the nine-phase election that ends on May 12.

"The polling has started at 7am (1:30am GMT) on a peaceful note," said Umesh Sinha chief electoral officer of the key battleground state of Uttar Pradesh.

Voters cast ballots for the first time in the southern city of Bangalore, home to IT giants Microsoft and Google, which will be a key test of the struggle between the Congress party and the BJP. In central Chhattisgarh, where an attack by Maoist insurgents left 14 dead at the weekend, the second phase of voting Thursday was marked by a new bomb attack on a railway line in the Bokaro district that disrupted travel.

A survey by the NDTV network this week forecast that the BJP would win 226 seats and, with its coalition allies, grab over 50 percent of the constituencies. Voters have turned against Congress over massive graft scandals, spiralling inflation and the sharp economic slowdown, polls indicate.

The key polling day comes after India's most famous "first family" fired up the rhetoric in a bid to win back support from Modi for its Congress party, warning that the BJP candidate was a threat to the nation's secular foundations.

The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which has dominated the country since independence from Britain in 1947, turned out for the election fight with Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, daughter Priyanka and son Rahul all hitting the campaign trail.

Sonia, 67, the left-leaning Congress party matriarch, warned voters that Modi would rip India's secular fabric, accusing him of representing a "dangerous combination of religious fanaticism, power and money".

Priyanka, 42, seen as the most gifted politician of India's so-called first family – which has given the country three premiers – said Modi would spread divisions between the majority Hindu and minority Muslim communities.

"The ideology of Congress is to unite people and maintain the unity of the country, while that of the opposition is to divide," she said.

Rahul, 43, has accused the BJP’s Modi of displaying "anger and arrogance".

'First family' feud

Priyanka has taken up the torch for India's secular identity, accusing her estranged cousin Varun Gandhi, a BJP candidate, of a "betrayal" of the family heritage in a headline-making feud this week.

Modi's penchant for Hindu nationalist rhetoric and his failure to put an end to deadly anti-Muslim riots that swept Gujarat state in 2002 when he was chief minister have stirred worries among critics about his ability to maintain a secular peace.

Modi, 63, has never been found guilty of any wrongdoing over the riots, in which at least 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, died.

He struck back late Wednesday at the Gandhi family's attacks, saying it was their "obsession to pull Modi down".

"But Modi does not lose, does not die," he said, referring to himself in the third person, according to local media.

He rejected demands that he apologise for the riots, saying he committed no crime. "If I am guilty, hang me in the street square," he said.

He added that Muslims in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi, where he is seeking a parliamentary seat, "love me when they meet me".

Modi, who claims that only he can revive India's sagging economy, has predicted that the BJP would score its "best" victory yet while the "useless and corrupt" Congress would face its "worst" defeat.

If Modi is successful in his political bid he will replace Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 81, a respected economist handpicked by Sonia after she returned Congress to power. But Singh's reputation recently took a hit with the release of a new book by his former press aide, who portrays him as a powerless puppet.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

Date created : 2014-04-17

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