VARANASI: Voters headed to the polls Monday in the final phase of India’s marathon election, with hardliner Narendra Modi expected to lead his Hindu nationalists to victory after 10 years of Congress party rule.
Modi, of the right-wing opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, was vying to win a seat in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi five weeks after the start of the world’s biggest election, which has been marred by religious divisions and personal attacks.
Modi urged voters to turn out in record numbers on Monday to throw the scandal-plagued Congress party, run by India’s most famous political dynasty the Gandhis, from power after 10 years in charge.
“People are tired of false promises, corruption and the same old tape-recorded messages,” Modi said in a blog after campaigning officially ended on Saturday night.
The first voters filed into polling stations at 07:00 am (0130 GMT) in Varanasi, with early queues indicating enthusiasm for one of the election’s most high-profile contests.
Modi is pitted against anti-corruption hero Arvind Kejriwal, the feisty leader of the upstart Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party.
More than 66 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots in three electorally critical states in the final phase of the election, which began on April 7.
Counting takes place on Friday and results are expected on the same day.
Opinion polls show voters have turned against Congress, which has dominated Indian politics since independence, over massive graft scandals, spiralling inflation and a sharp economic slowdown during its two terms in charge of a coalition government.
The BJP is forecast to win the most seats in the 543-member parliament, but it will likely fall short of an outright majority, meaning it will need to forge its own coalition with smaller and regional parties.
India’s opinion polls have proved wrong in the past and can be unreliable given the size and remoteness of sections of the country, which has 814 million eligible voters, the biggest electorate in history.
The first exit polls — surveys of voters as they leave polling stations — are expected later Monday, once voting ends at 6:00 pm.
Rahul Gandhi, who has headed a lacklustre Congress campaign, denied in comments published on Sunday that his party was staring at almost certain defeat.
“I am confident that the voters will give a mandate to an inclusive, fair and unifying (Congress) government,” he said in an interview to the Hindi-language Hindustan newspaper.
“The Congress understands the needs of the people, particularly those who are poor and disadvantaged.”
The voting will mark the end of an acrimonious election battle that has seen Modi trade blows with Rahul Gandhi, his sister Priyanka, and his mother Sonia, who is president of Congress.
There are 41 seats up for grabs in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state which sends 80 lawmakers to parliament, and the neighbouring states of Bihar and West Bengal.
Modi, 63, the son of a tea-stall owner who rose through the BJP ranks, has derided Rahul, 43, scion of the Gandhi dynasty which has produced three prime ministers, as a reluctant “shehzada” (prince).
Beleaguered Gandhi and other Congress leaders have hit back, accusing the avowed Hindu nationalist Modi of being dangerously divisive and prejudiced against the country’s 150-million strong Muslim minority.
The BJP “only wants to divide people, make people fight each other”, Gandhi told a mass rally in Varanasi on Saturday.
Modi, chief minister of prosperous Gujarat state, has campaigned on a pledge of development, investment and jobs to revive the flagging economy, largely steering clear of any Hindu nationalist agenda.
But he remains a deeply polarising figure over allegations that he failed to swiftly curb deadly 2002 anti-Muslim riots. The unrest that swept Gujarat during his early years as chief minister left at least 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, dead.
The BJP leader was never been found guilty of wrongdoing.
Security will be on high alert for Monday’s vote following a series of deadly attacks, including one by Maoist rebels on Sunday in which seven police were killed in a landmine blast in the central state of Maharashtra.