Millions vote in test for India’s Hindu hardliner

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December 13, 2012

Millions head out to vote on Thursday in India's Gujarat state where hawkish Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi is seeking a large win for a third term as chief minister to spur his ambitions to become a future national leader.

December 13, 2012

Millions head out to vote on Thursday in India's Gujarat state where hawkish Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi is seeking a large win for a third term as chief minister to spur his ambitions to become a future national leader.

Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, pictured on October 11, 2012

The first leg of the two-phased state election, which begins at 8:00 am (0230 GMT), will take place in 87 of 182 constituencies, with chief minister Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) almost assured of victory, according to polls.

Modi, who has been in power since 2001 after securing thumping victories in the last two votes, is looking to secure another sizeable majority to bolster his reputation, which was stained by religious riots in Gujarat in 2002.

Though he has never declared his ambition to be prime minister, his desire for the top spot in his party is an open secret and he is widely thought to be angling to lead the BJP into national elections due in 2014.

Almost half of Gujarat's 38-million electorate are eligible to vote on Thursday, where a total of 1,666 contestants are in the fray.

The final phase of the balloting is scheduled for December 17 with counting to take place three days later.

Some 100,000 security personnel are on duty at around 45,000 polling stations — some 17,000 of them labelled "vulnerable" to trouble, the state home department said.

The 62-year-old Modi's links to some of the worst sectarian violence in post-independence India make him a hate-figure for many Muslims and secularists and his rise to the top of the BJP would be controversial.

On Wednesday, he was back in the headlines after claiming the federal government, run by the Congress party which is in opposition in Gujarat, was set to "hand over" a disputed strip of water in Gujarat to neighbour Pakistan.

"I would earnestly request you to stop this dialogue with Pakistan at once and Sir Creek should not be handed over to Pakistan," Modi wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, released by his party.

Singh, who has pushed a peace dialogue with Pakistan as a means to reduce tension in nuclear-armed South Asia, countered that the letter was a "mischievous" and "baseless" stunt ahead of the election.

Modi is blamed by rights groups for turning a blind eye to the violence in Gujarat in 2002 which saw as many as 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, killed.

The son of a foodstall owner, who rose through the ranks of hardline grassroots Hindu groups, has always denied any wrongdoing in the riots and has never been convicted over the violence.

"Gujarat is progressing because we have peace, unity and compassion here," Modi told AFP in an interview in October.

On the campaign trail, he has targeted the corruption-plagued federal government in New Delhi and the heads of the ruling Congress party, the dynastic leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.


Courtesy: AFP