India votes in biggest day of elections

NEW DELHI – The biggest day of India’s parliamentary election starts Thursday with 12 states going to polls for 121 seats. 

The fifth phase of voting involves the length and breadth of India, from Indian-held Jammu & Kashmir in the north to Odisha in the south.

Key states including Uttar Pradesh – the state which elects the most lawmakers – and Bihar in north India, Maharashtra in the west and West Bengal in the east also go to polls on Thursday.

The other six states include Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh in central India, Jharkhand in the north, Karnataka in the south, Manipur in the northeast, and Rajasthan in the northwest.

There are a total of 1761 contestants for 121 seats. Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), an electoral-reform NGO, analysed 1739 contestants on the basis of poll affidavits and data provided by the candidates to the Election Commission of India, finding 279 candidates (17%) have declared criminal cases against themselves. 465 candidates are millionaires with an average asset of 80 million Indian rupees.    

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying its best to wrest control of the federal government, riding on the perceived “popularity wave” of its mascot Narendra Modi, the controversial politician and three-time chief minister of the western state of Gujarat.

The ruling Congress party-led coalition, the United Progressive Alliance – which has governed India since 2004 – has come in for sharp criticism and public scrutiny after a series of corruption scandals, policy paralysis and the slowing economy.

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday said rival Modi had followed a “toffee model” of development as chief minister of Gujarat – claiming land belonging to farmers was being given to big businesses as cheap as the price of a toffee. 

“About 4 million people in Gujarat are living below poverty line and one of every two children is hungry. People are yearning for water in Gujarat. Despite this, the toffee model money is flowing in for marketing,” 43-year-old Gandhi said accusing beneficiaries of discretionary land allotments of funding Modi’s election campaign.  

Reacting to the charges of crony capitalism, Modi on Tuesday accused Gandhi of being childish.   

“There is a player whose mind doesn’t move away from childishness. Such an important election about the country’s future but for ten days, a word that gripped him was ‘balloon’,” Modi said, recalling Gandhi’s earlier comments that the balloon of Gujarat development will soon burst.

“For ten days he kept repeating it. However, children don’t stick to a toy for too long and now he has caught the word ‘toffee’,” said Modi.   

Modi, the frontrunner to be the next prime minister of India, has begun to give interviews to select news channels, a departure from his earlier practice of avoiding the media interviews altogether.  

Qamar Waheed Naqvi, Editorial Director of India TV, sparked a major row when he resigned over an allegedly “fixed” interview of Modi which was featured on the Hindi news channel on Saturday evening. Congress has lodged a complaint with the Election Commission, claiming the interview was promotion for the BJP.

   The Election Commission of India has made all the preparations for the fifth and the most crucial phase of national contest in which Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) will be used to cast votes.

This is the first national election in which India’s voters have the right to reject candidates by pressing a NOTA (None of the Above) button, a reform being initiated as a result of a Supreme Court ruling last year.  

Out of the total 543 seats in India’s lower house of Parliament, 111 have already gone to voting in the month-long national election.     

The hotly contested election is being fought in nine phases from April 7 to May 12 around the key issues of corruption, inflation, unemployment, anti-incumbency and secularism.

The election results will be announced on May 16.

Around 815 million registered voters are expected to cast their ballots, an increase of 100 million new voters compared with the 2009 election.

According to opinion polls, the BJP, which has been in opposition for the past two terms, is expected to form the next federal government.

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