NEW DELHI— Millions of Indians headed to the polls on Thursday as the country held the biggest round of its rolling general election. The ruling Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi urged the country not to support its rival, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in an unusual televised address, but analysts say her appeal is unlikely to have much impact.
The 121 parliamentary seats for which voters lined up to choose lawmakers spanned Kashmir in the far north to the information technology hub Bangalore in the south.
Involving 12 states, the fifth day of polling is a high stakes round for both the opposition BJP and the ruling Congress Party.
The latest opinion poll shows the BJP and its allies winning a majority of the seats in parliament.
But crucial for clinching the winning number will be the BJP’s performance in battleground states such as Karnataka, and its bastions such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, where voting was held Thursday.
“They [BJP] will have to retain the number of seats and improve upon its performance in 2009 so that they can reach within the 272 required number of seats,” said Satish Misra, a political analyst at New Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation.
While BJP is promising development and good governance, the Congress Party is projecting itself as a pro-poor, inclusive party which will protect the country’s secular identity.
In the sharpest attack yet on the BJP, Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi urged the nation in a rare, three-minute paid televised address Monday night to reject divisive and autocratic forces and those whose vision was clouded by hatred and falsehood.
She did not name the BJP or its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, directly. Modi has been accused of not doing enough to stop sectarian violence in his Gujarat state in 2002. Critics have voiced fears of an anti-Muslim bias and accuse him of being authoritarian.
Gandhi said her party is fighting to protect the nation from those who want to divide it.
However, Misra doubts Sonia Gandhi’s appeal will influence voters.
“Fact of the matter is that in a political environment where the Congress is suffering from anti-incumbency and negative image, which is the result of the last ten years of various alleged scandals and scams, naturally people are looking for an alternative and Modi has been the only choice left to the people. There are not many choices,” said Misra.
The Congress Party’s image has taken another blow in recent days with a former media adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and a senior bureaucrat in his government releasing books portraying him as a weak leader and showing Sonia Gandhi as the wielder of real power. The revelations were not startling, but they provided more fodder to the BJP, which is promising strong leadership under Modi.
Polling still has to be held for more than half of the 543 seats and will be completed by May 12th. Voter turnout has been high so far, which pollsters say is an indication of a desire for change.