x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

India votes: 74 per cent turnout on first day of elections

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.

People line up to cast their vote outside a polling station at Dhekiajuli in Sonitpur district in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. Utpal Baruah / Reuter April 7
People line up to cast their vote outside a polling station at Dhekiajuli in Sonitpur district in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. Utpal Baruah / Reuter April 7

GAUHATI, India // India’s remote north-east voted yesterday on the first day of the world’s biggest election, with the opposition building strong momentum on promises of economic growth.

When polling ended turnout was estimated at 74 per cent.

With 814 million eligible voters, the election will take place over five weeks because of the country’s vast size. Voters will choose representatives for the 543-seat lower house of parliament.

“I’ve made it a point to vote this time because we want change,” said Rumi Nath, 36, waiting to vote in the rural town of Lakhimpur on the Brahmaputra River. “Our area remains backward and underdeveloped 67 years after independence.”

Final results from all 935,000 polling stations are expected on May 16.

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and its candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi, are the biggest threats to the now-governing Congress party.

The BJP is expected to do well but to fall short of a 272-seat majority, making a coalition government a likely outcome.

Polls suggest Congress could face a drubbing because of corruption scandals and recent years of economic slowdown. Mr Modi has been credited with ushering in strong industrial growth in the western state of Gujarat, where he has been chief minister for 11 years.

The election will be key to the future of the family dynasty that has ruled India for much of its post-independence history.

The Nehru-Gandhi family is facing its biggest political threat in over a decade, with Rahul Gandhi, the 43-year-old family scion, leading the Congress’s struggling campaign. While Mr Gandhi has been presented to voters as a youthful leader who can rejuvenate India’s faltering economy, many see him as privileged, aloof and out of touch with everyday Indians.

The party has not formally declared Mr Gandhi as its candidate for prime minister, political manoeuvring aimed at protecting him from being scapegoated if the party — and the family — is forced from power.

But while Congress faces a backlash, critics of Mr Modi question whether the Hindu nationalist candidate can be a truly secular leader. He has failed to take responsibility or apologise for communal rioting that left more than 1,000 dead in his state in 2002. He is accused of doing little to stop the anti-Muslim rampage, though he denies any wrongdoing and has never been charged with a crime.

The BJP was the last major party to release its campaign manifesto yesterday. It predicts India’s path toward full development through futuristic infrastructure projects such as high-speed trains, 100 new modern cities and wireless internet facilities in public places.

But such ambitious plans hold little appeal for most voters in rural Assam, where voting took place in five constituencies as well as in one in neighbouring Tripura state.

Here, people are more concerned about basic needs such as guarding against the dangers of flooding, soil erosion and heavy rains washing away homes, or building more roads and bridges to connect faraway towns and villages to the main cities.

“As monsoon sets in, we get worried about our daily meals,” said Pulok Nath, a voter in Lakhimpur. “We have been living on a mud embankment for years now after floods washed away our home and large part of our village.”

Several of the 8,000 polling stations were temporarily closed while faulty voting machines were fixed or replaced.

Both Congress and BJP were hoping for a strong showing in the seven north-east states nicknamed the “Seven Sisters” — occupying a remote region nestled between China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar and made up of diverse ethnicities. Gains for Congress among the 25 north-east seats would help offset expected losses elsewhere in India, while the BJP wants to seize one of Congress’s traditional strongholds.

Assam’s highest elected official, chief minister Tarun Gogoi of the Congress Party, said he was confident of winning re-election.

“There is no Narendra Modi magic in Assam. The Congress has been winning every form of elections since 2001 in Assam, and we are going to repeat the performance this time,” Mr Gogoi said.

In the last general election in 2009, Congress won seven of Assam’s 14 parliamentary seats to the BJP’s four, while regional parties won the rest.

Mr Gogoi’s 32-year-old son, running for office for his first time, said he was encouraged by the large number of politically engaged youths. With more than 65 per cent of India’s 1.2 billion people younger than 35, young voters are expected to have a strong effect on the election.

“I am extremely happy with the enthusiasm shown by the large number of young voters who have turned out to vote this time,” Gaurav Gogoi said.

Several groups of separatist ethnic or Maoist rebels have threatened violence during the vote.

Authorities said there were no violent incidents at the polls, thanks to the deployment of 25,000 police and paramilitary troops to guard polling stations. Helicopters were put on standby, and borders with Bangladesh and Bhutan were sealed.

“The elections passed peacefully,” said A P Raut, Assam’s police assistant director general.

* Associated Press