Voters in India's remote northeast cast ballots on the first day of the world's biggest election yesterday, with the Hindu nationalist opposition heading into the polls with strong momentum on the promises of a surge in economic growth.
The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and its candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi, pledged good governance and development as he released his party's delayed manifesto that also included controversial Hindu nationalist policies. He confirmed that his party would ban foreign supermarkets from the US$500 billion retail sector, a move that would deal a fresh setback to global chains such as Wal-Mart and Carrefour.
Watch: Indian voters kick off world's biggest election
The 814-million-strong electorate is forecast to inflict a heavy defeat on the Congress party, which has ruled for 10 years. The marathon contest, which is to be held over nine phases until May 12, got under way after a bad-tempered campaign that reached new levels of bitterness at the weekend.
On Friday, a judicial probe was ordered against Modi's close aide, Amit Shah, after he reportedly told supporters to see the election as "revenge" against a "government that protects and gives compensation to those who killed Hindus". Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said on Sunday a victory for Modi threatened India's religious fabric. "Wherever these people [the opposition BJP] go they create fights. They'll pit Hindus and Muslims against each other," he said.
The BJP said the remarks were taken out of context.
Prime ministerial front-runner Modi, the hawkish son of a tea seller, is a polarising figure due to his alleged links to anti-Muslim riots in 2002. Releasing the party's delayed manifesto, Modi said: "Today the country has become stagnant. It is drowned in pessimism. It needs momentum to move forward."
He has urged voters to give him a majority in the 543-seat parliament, in defiance of surveys which repeatedly show the BJP will need coalition partners when results are published on May 16.
Additional reporting by Associated Press