BANGALORE - India kicked off the biggest day of its mammoth general election on Thursday, with a quarter of its 815 million voters set to head to the polls during a week of fresh blows for the ruling Congress party and gains for the Hindu nationalist opposition.
Narendra Modi, the prime-ministerial candidate of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been wooing voters with promises to rescue India from its slowest economic growth in a decade and create jobs for its booming young population.
In the latest large opinion poll, the BJP and its allies were forecast to win a narrow majority in the 543-seat lower house of parliament, compared to previous surveys predicting that they would fall short.
Voting on Thursday is taking place in 120 constituencies across 12 states, from the fractious Himalayan region of Jammu and Kashmir - where election materials had to be airlifted to some remote polling stations - to the lush southern state of Karnataka whose capital is the IT and outsourcing hub Bangalore.
The world's biggest ever election is taking place in nine stages from April 7 to May 12, with results due on May 16. "We want Modi to win this time. That's why we are here early in the morning, doing our best for him," said Preetham Prabhu, a 32-year-old software engineer who was the first to cast his vote in a polling station that opened at 7 am in a residential suburb of eastern Bangalore.
The Congress party, led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, is forecast to suffer its worst-ever defeat after a decade in power due to public anger over the economic slowdown, high inflation and a string of graft scandals. The party has ruled India for more than 50 of its 67 years of independence.
Congress has struggled in recent days with a former media adviser and a former coal secretary both releasing books that paint Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a well-intentioned but weak figure who answers only to party president Sonia Gandhi. "It's only a dynasty, like previously we had kings ruling,"said P.V. Padmanabhan, a 79-year-old retired electricity board official who has voted in every Indian election, and was lining up to vote at the eastern Bangalore polling station. "They have to give it to somebody else. (Leaders) should not only come from Nehru's family."