India said Wednesday it will begin national elections on April 7, kicking off a month-long contest in the largest democracy in the world.
The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi, has the momentum heading into the polls. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center said 63 per cent of Indians prefer the Hindu nationalist BJP over the incumbent Congress party, which has dominated Indian politics for most of the country's history since independence in 1947.
The election is held over several weeks for reasons of logistics and safety in a country of 1.2 billion. More than 810 million people are eligible to vote this year — an increase of 100 million from five years ago, according to the Election Commission.
Vote counting will be held on May 16 and most results are expected the same day, Chief Election Commissioner VS Sampath said.
Rahul Gandhi, the 43-year-old heir to the country's Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, is leading the Congress party's struggling campaign. Congress has been battered by corruption scandals, internal feuding and an inability to deal with a stumbling economy and deep-rooted problems with poverty, infrastructure and education.
Modi also is facing his share of controversy.
The chief minister of western Gujarat state for the past 11 years, Modi is credited with turning his state into an industrial haven. But critics question whether the Hindu nationalist chief can be a truly secular leader over India's many cultures.
He has been accused of doing little to stop the riots in the state in 2002 which left more than 1,000 people dead.
Modi has denied any role in the violence and says he bears no responsibility for the killings. In December, he said that he had been "shaken to the core" by the violence and that his government responded to it swiftly and decisively.
Political analyst Zoya Hasan said the elections carry high stakes.
"The main issues will range from governance, corruption and inflation to jobs," he said. "But a very, very important issue that can't be brushed under the carpet as was being done is pluralism and secularism."
India's Lok Sabha, or lower house of Parliament, has 543 elected seats. Any party or coalition needs at least 272 MPs to form a government.
Hundreds of thousands of security forces are deployed during the polls to ensure peaceful voting. The country is wracked by insurgencies in states in central, northern and northeastern India. The rebels often target voting stations and security forces.
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