DIBRUGARH, India: Indians began voting Monday in the world’s biggest election, which is set to sweep the Hindu nationalist opposition to power at a time of low growth, anger over corruption and warnings about religious unrest.
The 814-million-strong electorate is forecast to inflict a heavy defeat on the Congress party, which has ruled for 10 years, and elect hard-liner Narendra Modi from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Voting began at 7:00 a.m. (0130 GMT) in six constituencies in tea-growing and insurgency-racked areas of the northeast.
“I want the government to reduce poverty and do something for the future of my children,” said 30-year-old tea plantation worker Santoshi Bhumej at a polling station in Dibrugarh in the state of Assam.
Men and women were packed tightly into separate queues when polls opened, shuffling slowly into tightly guarded booths to press the button for their candidates on electronic voting machines.
The marathon contest, to be held over nine phases until May 12, got under way after a bad-tempered campaign, which reached new levels of bitterness at the weekend.
Religious tensions, an undercurrent to the contest which has mostly focused on development until now, burst into the open on Friday when the closest aide of Modi was accused of incitement.
The Election Commission has issued notice to Modi’s close aide Amit Shah for his hate speeches in the riot-scarred Muzaffarnagar area in Uttar Pradesh.
Shah, who is in charge of the BJP’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh, had allegedly said in a speech that the election is a chance to seek “revenge for the insult” inflicted during the riots in Muzaffarnagar in September last, in which nearly 60 were killed and thousands displaced. “
The Election Commission has referred to these speeches and directed Shah to explain them by Wednesday.
Modi was seen to have attempted a damage control today, when he told the media at the release of his party’s manifesto, “I will not do anything with ill intent.”
Sources say the Election Commission feels his comments are a violation of the election code of conduct, which bans speeches that provoke hatred between communities.
Rahul Gandhi, leading Congress into his first national election as scion of the famous dynasty, said Sunday a victory for Modi threatens India’s religious fabric.
“Wherever these people (the opposition BJP) go they create fights. They’ll pit Hindus and Muslims against each other,” he said.
The BJP said talk of “revenge” was normal ahead of an election and the other remarks were taken out of context.
Prime ministerial front-runner Modi, the hawkish son of a tea seller whose rise has split his party, is a polarizing figure due to his alleged links to anti-Muslim riots in 2002.
Narendra Modi pledged good governance and development as he released his party’s delayed manifesto that also included controversial Hindu nationalist policies.
Modi and other BJP leaders unveiled their blueprint for government just hours after polls opened in the world’s biggest election, which they are widely expected to win.
“Good governance and development (are) the two issues on which we are fighting these elections,” Modi, the party’s prime ministerial candidate, said at party headquarters in New Delhi.
The 52-page manifesto welcomed foreign direct investment by almost all companies — except by overseas supermarkets — in a bid to create much-needed jobs and kickstart the flagging economy.
The BJP also pledged to simplify the taxation system, review labor laws and focus on infrastructure such as new cities, high-speed railways and broadband Internet.
The right-wing party, voted out of power in 2004, also stuck to controversial Hindu nationalist ideals which worry religious minorities, particularly Muslims, in Hindu-majority but officially secular India.
The BJP committed to a longstanding demand for the building of a temple to honor the Hindu god Ram on the site of India’s most notorious religious flashpoint.
The Indian constitution allows the country’s billion-plus citizens to be governed by their own religious laws, a privilege enjoyed by minorities such as Muslims and Christians.
Senior BJP leader Murali Manohar Joshi said the Ram temple issue was included in the manifesto because it was “culturally important,” but stressed that “Hindutva” (a Hindu nationalist agenda) was not on the election agenda.
In Assam, a Congress stronghold, some disgruntled voters said they had been swayed by his promises of better infrastructure, strong leadership, jobs and a clean administration.
“I believe that Modi will give us a corruption-free government,” Deepa Borgohain said as she complained bitterly about price rises during Congress’s rule.
Over the last decade, growth has averaged 7.6 percent per year, yet inflation has also been high and a sharp economic slowdown since 2012 has crippled the public finances and led investment to crash.