India kicks off world's biggest election
THE first Indians cast their votes in the world's biggest election
yesterday, with Hindu nationalist opposition candidate Narendra Modi seen holding a strong lead on promises of economic revival and jobs but likely to fall short of a majority.
Some 815 million people are registered to vote over the next five weeks as the election spreads 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.
Such is India's population growth that 100 million people have joined the electoral rolls since the last vote five years ago. More than half of the population is aged under 25.
Mr Modi, 63, is expected to score strongly among the young, thanks to his message of aspiration and skills over the left-leaning Congress' pitch of welfare and equitable development.
Elderly women in saris and young men in jeans and polo shirts lined up outside a dilapidated sports centre before voting started on a cool morning in Dibrugarh, a river town in tea-growing Assam, one of two states to vote yesterday.
"We need a change, someone who will come and change the whole scenario," said handbag shop manager Ashim Sarkar, 35, lining up soon after voting started at 7am.
During high-octane campaigning at well-attended rallies the length and breadth of India, Mr Modi has been promising just that change - to jumpstart a flagging economy and sweep out the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
Mr 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 this week.
In such a situation, a coalition government led by the BJP is seen as the most likely outcome.
India's diverse electorate and parliamentary system mean that local leaders - and local issues - still hold great sway.
In some constituencies this could stymie the BJP, which has run a presidential-style campaign focused wholly on Mr Modi.
Among residents working as casual tea pickers on plantations around Dibrugarh, many had not heard of Mr Modi.
"I vote for the local candidate - that is who affects my life," said Ms Shanti Naik, a woman selling biscuits and shampoo sachets at a stall, who said she planned to vote for Congress.
"Whoever is in Delhi, it doesn't bother me."