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INDIA POLLS: Elections enter final lap today

Publication Date : 12-05-2014


India in 41 constituencies vote today, completing a nine-instalment election across the vast nation that has been marked by the personal animosity between opposition front runner Narendra Modi, who is a candidate in today's polls, and the Gandhi clan that presides over the governing Congress party.

Relatively peaceful despite the bitterness that has marked the final weeks of the campaign, the parliamentary elections - which follow a decade of Congress rule - have drawn unusual interest, with voters turning out in record numbers.

Some 814 million people are eligible to vote for the 543 seats in the powerful Lower House of Parliament, and more than 100 million of them are first-time voters, not surprising in a nation where the median age is about 27.

Aware of this, most political parties have been active on social media. Modi himself had 3.94 million Twitter followers as of noon yesterday, the most for any Indian politician. It is also three times that of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has announced his retirement and barely campaigned for his party.

Exit polls are allowed to be published only 30 minutes after the last polling booths close this evening. But expectations are for an impressive showing by Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political front of the militant Hindu outfit Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or National Volunteer Corps.

Modi, accompanied by BJP president Rajnath Singh, met RSS leaders over the weekend to discuss the post-election strategy, according to Indian media.

While results will not be known until this Friday, investors - predicting a big win for the business-friendly Modi - have pumped up stocks, and the benchmark Sensex soared 600 points to a record close last Friday.

"Modi's great ability was to set the agenda for this election," said political observer Ghanshyam Shah, a national fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research.

"He never spoke of his strategy for development or controlling inflation or creating employment. Nevertheless, his ability to adjust his speeches to local issues and a tendency to exaggerate his achievements have served him well. People have started believing his story."

In the final hours of the campaign, which ended last Saturday, Rahul Gandhi, who is vice-president of Congress, stormed Modi's constituency, the Gangetic town of Varanasi. The Congress party is led by Gandhi's mother Sonia.

It was a tit for tat response to Modi's rally held in Gandhi's own constituency early last week. But the burst of energy from Gandhi came too late in the day.
While Gandhi drew an impressive crowd, with people from the minority Muslim community showing up in strong numbers, Modi is tipped for an easy win in Varanasi, a city holy to Hindus.

India's Muslims are wary of Modi after he failed to control massive rioting in his home state of Gujarat in 2002, which followed the torching of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims.

Twice as many Muslims as Hindus died in the riots, and while Gujarat has had no major communal upheaval since, the taint has stuck with the 63-year-old politician.

Yesterday, police and paramilitary personnel were patrolling a part of the communally sensitive town of Meerut in Uttar Pradesh state, after Hindus and Muslims clashed over the construction of a fence around a common well. More than a dozen people were injured in the clashes, which took place last Saturday.

Earlier, more than 40 people died in the north-eastern state of Assam when local tribals clashed with Bengali-speaking immigrants from Bangladesh, who are mostly Muslim.

"If opinion polls turn out right, this is going to be one man's victory," said T.N. Ninan, perhaps India's most respected editor and columnist.

"It is Modi who has swung a probably dissatisfied but perhaps undecided electorate his way. Equally, this is an election that Rahul Gandhi lost. He has manifestly muffed it."


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