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April 6, 2014 7:36 am
Hindu nationalist opposition leader Narendra Modi has strengthened his polling lead and appears poised to inflict a heavy defeat on India’s ruling Congress party, as the country’s 815m voters begin a month-long election process on Monday.
The fiercely contested poll kicks off amid the relative tranquillity of India’s rural northeastern region in the state of Assam, continuing in nine phases before results are released on May 16.
Final opinion polls showed the opposition centre-right Bharatiya Janata party and its allies coming close to the 272 seats needed to form an outright majority in India’s lower house of parliament, potentially providing Mr Modi with a strong mandate to push through badly needed structural economic reforms.
The BJP’s National Democratic Alliance is set to win as many as 246 seats, according to a pre-election survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, which is considered by many polling experts to be the most reliable indicator of the election’s outcome.
A victory on this scale would almost certainly see Mr Modi become India’s prime minister at the head of a relatively stable coalition government, with his party and its allies joining forces with a small number of regional players shortly after the final results are declared.
The most recent polls also underscored the strength of the opposition leader’s personal appeal, with the BJP itself poised to win as many as 218 seats, the highest in the party’s history and an outcome that would confirm the party’s claims of a so-called “Modi wave” of popular support.
The eve of voting provided little comfort for Congress, however, which is braced for a resounding defeat, with its seat count possibly falling by more than half to less than 100 under its figurehead leader Rahul Gandhi, the son of party leader Sonia Gandhi and great-grandson of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
The strengthening of Mr Modi’s lead is likely to reassure anxious international investors, who pumped about $3.7bn into India’s equity market in March on the back of optimism over a likely decisive election result, sending stocks to repeated record highs and leading to sharp appreciation in the once-battered rupee.
On Sunday, Mr Modi was due to make his final appeal to voters before voting begins in two large rallies in Uttar Pradesh, a crucial swing state with 200m voters in the the country’s Hindi-speaking heartland, where the BJP is also expected to perform well, winning 53 out of a possible 80 seats, according to another poll released at the weekend.
However the party was still to launch its much-anticipated election manifesto, which is belatedly due to be unveiled on Monday after a series of delays that have mildly dented the opposition party’s claims for administrative efficiency.
Many liberal commentators remain concerned about the prospect of a Modi prime ministership, especially given his unwillingness to apologise for bloody communal riots that occurred during his early tenure as chief minister of the state of Gujarat more than a decade ago.
The world’s largest democracy, with nearly 800m eligible voters, is heading for one of its most uncertain national polls in decades
However the opposition leader’s national campaign, combined with the lack of an obvious alternative option to form a stable government capable of reviving economic growth, has seen a number of once-sceptical figures back the BJP leader.
Gurcharan Das, an author and former head of consumer goods group Procter & Gamble in India, endorsed Mr Modi on Sunday, despite having previously described him as “dictatorial” while raising concerns that he could inflame communal tensions between India’s Hindus and Muslims.
“The BJP’s thinking in the past year has been dramatically transformed by Narendra Modi who is single-mindedly focused on investment, jobs, skills and growth,” Mr Das wrote in the Times of India.
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