by Reena Kumar
ELECTION frenzy is hotting up in India as voters prepare to take to the polls in the largest democratic ballot in the history of mankind.
Almost 815 million people are registered to vote as Narendra Modi, the leader of the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Patry (BJP) and chief minister of Gujarat, battles it out against the ruling Congress party, led by Rahul Gandhi.
Phase one of voting starts on Monday (7) with the whole process expected to last five weeks. Results to the 543-seat national parliament are expected to be announced on May 16 after counting.
Opinion polls show that Congress, which has dominated Indian politics since independence in 1947, could lose more than half of its seats in the lower house of parliament (Lok Sabha).
Modi's BJP is widely expected to come to power with the help of small regional parties.
A sense of anti-incumbency combined with a series of corruption scams have diminished the appeal of the Congress party among voters.
Britain, the European Union and the US, among other countries will be watching who will be India's next prime minister in one of the most keenly-contested elections in recent years.
Modi is accused of doing little to stop bloodshed in Gujarat when communal riots took place in 2002, although he has always denied any wrongdoing and subsequent court investigations have not found anything on the chief minister.
However, many western nations, including Britain and the US distanced themselves from the Gujarat leader.
That changed recently, and last year the UK was the first in Europe to end its boycott on meeting Modi followed by other European countries.
Director of School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)'s South Asia Institute, Professor Michael Hutt, told Eastern Eye: “A great deal is at stake in these elections. The shape and complexion of the government that emerges from them will determine the scale of India’s future economic growth, the political future of India’s ‘first family’, and relations between the country’s Hindu and Muslim populations, as the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party seems set to make significant gains.”
Voters will cast their ballots as India struggles through its longest period of sub-5 per cent economic growth since the 1980s. Job growth has slowed and infrastructure projects stalled.
Under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and its president Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born mother of Rahul, the Congress has seen its fortunes plummet since 2009 when it won a second term in office.
Some senior Congress politicians are only too aware of the party's prospects, with finance minister P Chidambaram recently describing Congress as the "underdog".
He acknowledged that after a decade in power, "there is a certain amount of anti-incumbency against us".
A senior research fellow in South Asia at Chatham House, which is home to the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Dr Gareth Price, told EE: "The current government has suffered a string of corruption scandals, everyone is campaigning to get rid of corruption.
"Among the urban middle class, Congress is finished because of corruption scandals."
Rahul Gandhi has said the Congress party will focus on constructing a manufacturing backbone, and will ensure the population has access to quality health care if it continues to rule the nation.
The BJP's main policies involve creating infrastructure, jobs and investment.
Joining fray this time round is the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party led by self-described "anarchist" Arvind Kejriwal, a new movement spawned by widespread anger about corruption.
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