India kicks off world's biggest election in remote northeast
The first Indians cast their votes today in the world's biggest election, with Hindu nationalist opposition candidate Narendra Modi holding a strong lead but likely to fall short of a majority.
Some 815 million people are registered to vote over the next five weeks as the election ripples 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 in Dibrugarh, a river town in the tea-growing state of Assam, one of two states to vote today.
"We need a change, someone who will come and change the whole scenario," said handbag shop manager Ashim Sarkar, 35.
During high-octane campaigning at well-attended rallies the length and breadth of India, Modi has been promising to jumpstart a flagging economy and sweep out the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has ruled India for most of the period since independence in 1947.
"The proposals in the manifesto have the power to lift the nation from the ditch that it has fallen into, it has the power to give momentum to a nation that has stalled," Modi said at the New Delhi launch of his party's manifesto.
Turnout in the five constituencies in Assam that went to the polls today was 75 percent. Voting ended at 5 p.m. and was peaceful, the chief election officer for the state told Reuters.
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 last week by Indian pollsters CSDS. In such an outcome, a coalition government led by the BJP is seen as likely.
An efficient administrator, Modi is liked by big business in a country entangled in red tape.
Overseas investors have bought Indian shares worth $4.46 billion and bonds worth $5.8 billion in 2014, in part on the hope the BJP will come to power. Indian shares hit a record high on April 3 and the rupee rose to 59.5950 on April 2, its strongest in eight months.
But Modi 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. On Monday he said he would govern for all Indians, but his moderate image-building was dented when election authorities demanded a key campaign manager explain inflammatory statements against Muslims.