India called a quarter of its 815 million voters to polls yesterday, the biggest day of its five-week staggered election, in areas ranging from Himalayan passes to a southern technology hub and western sugar cane farms.
The country is now more than halfway through its nine days of voting for a new parliament in the world’s biggest-ever election, with the ruling Congress Party struggling to hold ground against the Hindu nationalist opposition.
Narendra Modi, the right-wing opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) candidate for prime minister, has been wooing voters with promises to rouse India’s economy from its slowest growth in a decade and create jobs for its booming young population.
The ruling centre-left Congress Party has been hit by a series of scandals and in-fighting.
A decision by the Election Commission to reprimand a senior Modi aide for making speeches deemed to stir tensions with minority Muslims underlined critics’ assertions that the right-wing party is a divisive force.
However, in the latest large opinion poll, taken in the first week of April, the BJP and its allies were forecast to win a narrow majority in the 543-seat lower house of parliament.
“Modi could be the change we need,” said software engineer Murali Mohan, after casting his vote in a suburb of Bangalore, the centre of India’s outsourcing sector and the capital of the lush southern state of Karnataka. “I want to see constructive work, economic development in this country,” said Mr Mohan.
Voting took place in 120 constituencies across 12 states, with election materials airlifted to parts of the fractious Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir, while mobile polling stations in vans were used in the deserts of Rajasthan.
One rural constituency in the western state of Maharashtra had three candidates with the same name, an apparent use of the “clone candidates” strategy that parties sometimes employ to confuse voters and split support for rivals.
The voting sessions run until 12 May, with the results due on 16 May.
Mr Modi’s image remains tarnished by Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat, the western state where he is chief minister, on his watch 12 years ago.
More than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in the violence.
Mr Modi denies accusations that he failed to stop the riots and a Supreme Court inquiry found he had no case to answer.
On Wednesday, authorities issued an order rebuking Amit Shah, who runs the BJP’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh, over his speeches.
The commission last week banned Mr Shah from election rallies and meetings.