VARANASI, India (AFP) ― Voters head to the polls Monday in the final phase of India’s marathon election, with the hard-liner 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, will be vying to win his 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.
“They want a better tomorrow and NDA is the only alliance that can provide this change,” Modi added, referring to a BJP-led National Democratic Alliance opposition coalition.
|Voters queue to cast their ballots at a polling center on the final day of polling in Varanasi in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Monday. ( AP-Yonhap)|
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. Polls open at 7 a.m.
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, spiraling inflation and a sharp economic slowdown during its two terms in charge of a coalition government.
The BJP is expected 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.
Rahul Gandhi, who has headed a lackluster 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.”
Among the 41 seats up for grabs on Monday, the battle for Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh state will take center stage, with Modi pitted against anticorruption hero Arvind Kejriwal, the feisty leader of the upstart Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party.
Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state and sends 80 lawmakers to parliament, making it key to the eventual outcome. Voting also takes place on Monday in the neighboring states of Bihar and West Bengal.
The voting will mark the end of an acrimonious election battle that has seen Modi launch personal attacks on Rahul Gandhi, his sister Priyanka and his mother Sonia, who is president of Congress.
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).”
The 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 Modi remains a deeply polarizing figure over allegations that he failed to swiftly curb deadly 2002 anti-Muslim riots. The riots that swept Gujarat during his early years as chief minister left at least 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, dead.
The BJP leader was denied any 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.