India voters kick off world's biggest election

India voters kick off world's biggest election
Indian voters wait in line to vote outside a polling station.

DIBRUGARH, India - Indians began voting in the world's biggest election Monday which is set to sweep the Hindu nationalist opposition to power at a time of low growth, anger about corruption and warnings about religious unrest.

India's 814-million-strong electorate are forecast to inflict a heavy defeat on the ruling Congress party, in power for 10 years, and elect hardliner Narendra Modi from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Voting began at 7:00 am (0130 GMT) in six constituencies in tea-growing and insurgency-wracked areas of the northeast, an often neglected part of the country wedged between Bangladesh, China and Myanmar.

"I want the government to reduce poverty and do something for the future of my children," said 30-year-old tea plantation worker Santoshi Bhumej at a polling station in Dibrugarh in the state of Assam.

Men and women were packed tightly into separate queues when polls opened, shuffling slowly into tightly guarded booths to press the button for their candidates on electronic voting machines.

The marathon contest, to be held over nine phases until May 12, got under way after a bad-tempered campaign which reached new levels of bitterness at the weekend.

Religious tensions, an undercurrent to the contest which has mostly focused on development until now, burst into the open on Friday when the closest aide of Modi was accused of inciting sentiments.

Amit Shah faces a judicial investigation after he reportedly told supporters to see the election as "revenge" against a "government that protects and gives compensation to those who killed Hindus".

Rahul Gandhi, leading Congress into his first national election as scion of the famous dynasty, warned Sunday that a victory for Modi threatens India's religious fabric.

"Wherever these people (the opposition BJP) go they create fights. They'll pit Hindus and Muslims against each other," he warned on Sunday.

The BJP said talk of "revenge" was normal ahead of an election and said the other remarks were taken out of context.

Prime ministerial front-runner Modi, the hawkish son of a tea seller whose rise has split his party, is a polarising figure due to his links to anti-Muslim religious riots in 2002.

Releasing the party's delayed manifesto on Monday, which mixed promises for economic development and the protection of Hindu interests, Modi promised to lift the mood of the country.

"Today the country has become stagnant. It is drowned in pessimism. It needs momentum to move forward," he said.

He has urged voters to give him a majority in the 543-seat parliament, in defiance of surveys which repeatedly show the BJP are likely to need coalition partners when results are published on May 16.

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