India holds biggest day of voting as Hindu nationalists gain
A voter is helped at a polling station in Kamshet, a village in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, on Thursday. About 815 million people have registered to vote in the world's biggest election - a number exceeding the population of Europe, and a . Results of the mammoth exercise, which ends on May 12, are due on May 16. Danish Siddiqui / Reuters
India held the biggest day of itsgeneral election on Thursday, with a quarter of its 815-million-strong electorate eligible to vote during a week of fresh blows for the ruling Congress party and gains for the Hindu nationalist opposition.
In the latest large, the BJP and its allies were forecast to win a narrow majority in the 543-seat lower , compared to previous surveys predicting that they would fall short.
Yet a decision by theto reprimand a senior Modi aide for making speeches deemed to stir tensions with minority Muslims underlined critics' assertions that the party is a divisive force.
The world's biggest-ever election is taking place in nine stages from April 7 to May 12, with results due on May 16.
"We want Modi to win this time. That's why we are here early in the morning, doing our best for him," said Preetham Prabhu, a 32-year-oldwho was the first to cast his vote in a polling station in a residential suburb of Bangalore.
Modi's image remains tarnished by Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat, the western state where he is chief minister, on his12 years ago. More than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in the violence.
Modi denies accusations that he failed to stop the riots, and ainquiry found he had no case to answer. In an interview with ANI on Wednesday, Modi accused reporters of smearing him over the riots.
The Congress party, led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, is forecast to suffer its worst-ever defeat after a decade indue to public anger over the economic slowdown, high inflation and a string of graft scandals. The party has ruled India for more than 50 of its 67 years of .
Congress has struggled in recent days with a former media adviser and a former coal secretary both releasingthat paint as a well-intentioned but weak figure who answers only to party President Sonia Gandhi.
"It's only a dynasty, like previously we hadruling," said P.V. Padmanabhan, a 79-year-old retired electricity board official who has voted in every Indian election, and was lining up to vote at the eastern Bangalore polling station.
"They have to give it to somebody else. (Leaders) should not only come from Nehru's family," referring to Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister.
Indian elections are notoriously hard to forecast due to the country's diverse electorate and parliamentary system in which local candidates hold great sway.
Opinion polls wrongly predicted a victory for a BJP-led alliance in elections in 2004 and underestimated Congress' winning margin in 2009.
Thursday's parliamentary candidates include IT billionaire and Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, running for Congress in Bangalore, and Maneka Gandhi, an estranged member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty standing for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh.
Voter turnout has been 68 percent on average in the 111 constituencies that have voted so far, according to the Election Commission, aincrease in the 60 percent in the same constituencies and 58 percent nationally in 2009.
"It is because of the people's unrest against the establishment. It is the anti-incumbency," Nitin Gadkari, a BJP leader and the party's former president, told Reuters.