India hosted its biggest day of voting on Thursday with the ruling Congress party battling to stem a further slide in the polls against the opposition Hindu nationalists after another week of damaging headlines.
Voters lined up at 7:00 am (01:30 GMT) in 121 constituencies across a dozen states on the sixth day of staggered voting in the election extravaganza which ends with results on May 16.
More than 195 million voters are eligible to cast ballots, about a quarter of the 814-million-strong electorate, with the key battleground states of northern Uttar Pradesh and southern Karnataka in play.
“It is a very important election, as it will decide the country’s future, the idea of India and its philosophy,” billionaire first-time candidate Nandan Nilekani told AFP in the IT hub of Bangalore.
Nilekani, who made his fortune co-founding the multinational IT outsourcer Infosys, is standing for the Congress party in the city where inflation, corruption and slowing economic growth are seen as key issues.
The Congress party, in power for two terms since 2004, is widely expected to lose to the resurgent opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is being led by hardline Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi.
Faced with a new survey this week showing for the first time the BJP and its allies reaching a majority in the 543-seat parliament, the ruling Gandhi political dynasty has sharpened its attacks on Modi.
Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, whose daughter Priyanka and son Rahul are also on the campaign trail, told voters Wednesday that Modi represented a “dangerous combination of religious fanaticism, power and money”.
Vice-president Rahul, who has dropped his earlier reluctance to target Modi personally, has accused him of “crony capitalism” in Gujarat, the western business-friendly state which his opponent has run since 2001.
Priyanka, whose recent public appearances have overshadowed her brother, also accused the BJP of trying to divide the country on religious grounds.
While drawing the focus away from her brother, Priyanka has also been sucked into a war of words with her estranged cousin Varun who is standing for the BJP, accusing him of a “betrayal”.
Senior BJP figure Arun Jaitley has seized on the bickering and predictions that Congress will suffer its worst ever result due to the corruption scandals and low economic growth which have marked its recent years in power.
“The family charisma has faded away,” he said in a statement on Monday.
In further bad news, a new book hit shelves this week by a former aide to 81-year-old Prime Minister Manmohan Singh which portrays him as a puppet picked by Sonia Gandhi who did too little to prevent graft in his cabinet.
Elsewhere Thursday, voters cast ballots in the crucial battleground state of Uttar Pradesh, the western desert state of Rajasthan and central Chhattisgarh, where an attack by Maoist insurgents left 14 dead at the weekend.
The second phase of voting there on Thursday was marked by a new bomb attack on a railway line in the Bokaro district which disrupted travel but caused no casualties, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
Modi, 63, struck back late Wednesday at the Gandhi family’s attacks on him, saying it was their “obsession to pull Modi down”.
“But Modi does not lose, does not die,” he said, referring to himself in the third person, according to local media.
His Hindu nationalist rhetoric and failure to swiftly curb 2002 deadly anti-Muslim riots that swept Gujarat state when he was chief minister have stirred worries among critics about his ability to maintain secular peace.
The BJP leader has never been found guilty by official investigations of any wrongdoing over the riots in which at least 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, died.
He rejected demands that he apologise for the riots, saying he committed no crime.
“If I am guilty, hang me in the street square,” he said.
He added Muslims in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi where he is seeking a parliamentary seat “love me when they meet me”.
Modi, who has declared only he can revive India’s sagging economy, said the BJP would score its “best” victory while the “useless and corrupt” Congress faced its “worst” defeat.