NEW DELHI - India’s general election has begun with voters casting ballots in two remote northeastern states. Billed as the world’s largest democratic exercise, the staggered election involving some 815 million voters will conclude in five weeks. Opinion polls say the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party is likely to emerge the winner on its promise of economic revival.
There were long lines at polling stations in the northeastern states of Assam and Tripura as people waited Monday to choose their lawmakers for the national parliament.
The first round of voting involves only six of the 543 parliamentary seats for which the ruling Congress Party, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and a host of regional parties are vying.
The Congress Party has a strong presence in much of the northeast, and this is one of the few places where it is expected to retain its hold. The underdeveloped tea and rice growing region is home to many ethnic communities.
The head of the Centre for North East Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, Sanjoy Hazarika, says the situation has improved in the region, which has been wracked by insurgencies.
“The Congress has over the last 10-12 years been able to deliver a semblance of stability, peace if not complete peace, a fractious peace, there has been some basic delivery of services," said Hazarika. "These are the things that matter.”
However the situation differs markedly in many other parts of the country, where the opposition BJP is forecast to make major gains on its promise of rebooting the country’s plummeting economy and providing corruption-free administration.
The man who polls say could be the country’s next prime minister, Narendra Modi, repeated that promise on Monday as his party, the BJP, released its election manifesto in New Delhi.
Modi says his party is forging ahead on two issues: good governance and development. He pledged to leave no stone unturned to deliver these.
The BJP manifesto lays out a plan to rejuvenate Brand India, which it says suffered under the decade-long rule of the Congress Party. It focuses on building modern infrastructure such as high speed trains and new cities, and reviving manufacturing to create jobs.
The party says it will encourage foreign direct investment in all areas except the retail sector. The BJP has long opposed the entry of foreign super retailers such as Walmart.
Controversial issues such as a pledge to build a Hindu temple at the site of a mosque torn down more than two decades ago in Uttar Pradesh state also figure in the manifesto.
But the BJP strongly dismissed concerns that the party will push a Hindu nationalist agenda, known as “Hindutva.”
Murli Manohar Joshi is a top leader of the BJP. “This is nothing to do with Hindutva," said Joshi. "This is simply a developmental program and the issues which are also culturally important have been also adumbrated in it. Hindutva has never been an issue for elections you see.”
The ruling Congress Party and other critics have raised fears that the BJP is divisive. They point to riots which wracked Gujarat state under Narendra Modi’s watch in 2002 and killed nearly 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. He has been cleared by the Supreme Court of any involvement.
But political observers say for most voters that issue is on the backburner.
They say the question is not whether the BJP will win the election, but whether it will win enough votes to form a stable government.
There will be eight more rounds of polling ending more than a month later on May 12th in the country’s heartland. Although there could be as many as half a billion votes to be counted, results are expected to be out in just a day on May 16.