India's Modi picks Hindu holy town Varanasi for elections

India's Modi picks Hindu holy town Varanasi for elections

NEW DELHI - India's opposition leader Narendra Modi, frontrunner to be the country's next prime minister after elections starting next month, will contest the polls from the Hindu holy city of Varanasi.

Modi's opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) announced late Saturday the latest list of seats for candidates to contest the five-week-long elections from April 7 in the world's largest democracy.

"Grateful to the party for giving me opportunity to contest the election from the holy city of Varanasi! An honour to contest from Varanasi," Modi tweeted soon after the announcement.

The move is part of the BJP's tactics to win the critical northern battleground state of Uttar Pradesh, where the Hindu temple city of Varanasi, home to around 1.4 million people, is located.

But the decision is also loaded with symbolism given Modi's roots as a Hindu hardliner and criticism of his handling of anti-Muslim riots that worry religious minorities and defenders of India's officially secular character.

The ruling Congress party jumped on the decision on Sunday, saying it sent a clear signal to supporters of his intentions if elected to push a hardline Hindu nationalist agenda.

"Mr Modi's calibrated camouflage of his communal intentions exposed by his choice of Varanasi," Congress national party spokesman Sanjay Jha said on Twitter.

Modi, the chief minister of western Gujarat state, has avoided polarising issues during the campaign, instead portraying himself as a pro-business reformer and a champion of economic development who can turn around India's slumping economy.

Modi has consistently denied claims that he failed to stop the riots which erupted in 2002 in Gujarat while he was chief minister that killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.

Modi, who is tipped by the opinion polls to win the elections, could also contest from a seat in Gujarat under the Indian electoral system that allows candidates to run for parliament from a maximum of two seats.

Historically any political party that has won Uttar Pradesh - which has a population of around 200 million people and sends 80 members to India's 543-member national parliament - has also won the Indian election.

India will vote in nine phases starting on April 7 and running until May 12 with 814 million people eligible to take part. The counting and results of the polls will be announced on May 16.

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