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Voters to Elect New Government in India's Gujarat State

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India's western state of Gujarat is electing a new state government. The polls will decide the political fortunes of a Hindu hard-line chief minister who rules the state and are being seen as a test for India's two main parties - the Congress Party, which heads the federal government, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules Gujarat. Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi.

Voters in Gujarat headed to polling booths on Tuesday to choose between the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the state government, and the Congress Party.

But the elections are not being seen as a simple choice between India's two main parties.

At the heart of the polls is the state's chief minister, Narendra Modi. He became one of India's most controversial politicians five years ago when he was accused of failing to protect Muslims during sectarian riots in which 1,000 people - mostly Muslims - were killed.

The riots, however, failed to dent Modi's popularity in Gujarat, which is regarded as a Hindu nationalist stronghold.

Modi campaigned on a platform of development. He has turned Gujarat into an economic success story, winning investment and building infrastructure for one of India's richest states. His supporters say he runs an efficient government.

Zoya Hasan, a professor of politics at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, says, however, that the concerns generated by the 2002 riots have not gone away.

"I think the Gujarat government has been making a big pitch about development but it has not been able to provide safety and security for all citizens of Gujarat," said Hasan. "What is important is to ensure that whichever party comes to power, it uphold the basic values of inclusive development, inclusive growth, of an inclusive society."

The Congress Party made the same point in its campaign. At times the campaign turned nasty - Congress leader Sonia Gandhi called the rulers of the state "merchants of death."

Most political analysts predict a tight race, but say Modi remains ahead of his rivals.

They say a Modi victory will boost the flagging fortunes of the BJP, which lost power in national elections three years ago.

On the other hand, a good performance by the Congress Party will give it a boost ahead of national elections expected in 2009.

The election is being conducted in two phases. The second round of polling takes place December 16. Votes will be counted on December 23.

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