Modi up against Gandhi
INDIA, the world's largest democracy, announced yesterday that it would stage a five-week election from April 7 - a contest expected to bring Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi to power on a platform of economic revival.
The head of the election commission said voting would be held in nine phases until May 12, and counting would begin four days later on May 16.
"It is expected that counting will be over in a single day," Chief Election Commissioner V. S. Sampath told a press conference.
Some 814 million people will be entitled to vote, 100 million more than in the last polls in 2009.
A total of 930,000 polling stations will be set up, from the Himalayas in the north to India's tropical southern tip.
The contest will pit Mr Modi, son of a tea-stall owner, against Mr Rahul Gandhi, the Harvard- and Cambridge-educated scion of India's biggest political dynasty, which has dominated post-independence politics.
After two terms of coalition government led by the leftist Congress party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Mr Modi is widely forecast to emerge as the largest party.
Mr Modi, leader of the western state of Gujarat since 2001, is seen as a pro-business reformer, but his Hindu nationalism and links to anti-Muslim riots worry religious minorities and defenders of India's officially secular character.
The 63-year-old, who rose through grassroots Hindu organisations, is pitching a message of jobs and development to a country struggling with decade-low economic growth and still endemic poverty.
His main opponent in the Congress is the relatively untested Gandhi, the son, grandson and great-grandson of former prime ministers. Mr Gandhi, 43, is leading his party into a national election for the first time.
Opinion polls show Mr Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat when anti-Muslim riots left more than 1,000 dead in 2002, holds a large advantage over his bitter rival.
But whoever emerges as the ultimate victor - and India's opinion polls are notoriously unreliable - will almost certainly have to stitch together a coalition with smaller regional parties.
No single party has won a parliamentary majority since 1989, and the electorate has fractured in successive decades, giving often-populist regional leaders immense power at the national level.
This would likely limit any "Hindutva" or Hindu nationalist agenda that Mr Modi attempts to put forward, and could crimp his development plans.
A new movement with national ambitions, the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party led by former tax inspector Arvind Kejriwal, will also be an unpredictable element in this year's polls.
Just over a year since its formation, the party won enough seats in December's Delhi state election to take power in what was seen as a political earthquake in the graft-plagued nation.
The Congress party under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and its president Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born mother of Mr Gandhi, has seen its fortunes plummet since 2009, when it won a second term in office.