Heavy turnout in 6th phase adds to saffron excitement

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West Bengal sees 83% voting, TN 73%, Maharashtra & UP 55%

Heavy turnout in 6th phase adds to saffron excitement
India called a quarter of its 815 million voters to polls on Thursday, the big­gest day of its staggered ele­ction and is now over half­way through its nine days of voting for a new Parliament with the ruling Congress party struggling to hold ground against the Hindu nationalist opposition.

Narendra Modi, the Bh­a­r­­atiya Janata Party’s (BJP) candidate for prime minister, has been wooing voters with promises to rouse the economy from its slowest growth in a decade and create jobs for its booming young population.

But in the latest large opinion poll, taken in the first week of April, the BJP and its allies were forecast to win a narrow majority in the 543-seat lower house of Parliament, compared with previous surveys predicting that they would fall short.

High voter turnout on Thursday marked the sixth phase of polling in the Lok Sabha elections in 12 states, including Tamil Nadu where 73 per cent voters exercised their franchise for all the 39 seats. A total of 117 seats were involved in Thursday’s exercise that saw completion of elections in 349 of the total of 543 seats.

“Modi could be the change we need,” said software engineer Murali Mohan, after casting his vote in a suburb of Bangalore, the centre of India’s outsourcing sector and capital of Karnataka.

Political heavyweights like external affairs minister Salman Khurshid (Congress) who is in fray from Farrukhabad constituency in UP, SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav contesting from Mainpuri also in UP, leader of the opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj (BJP) in Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh, her party colleague Shahnawaz Hussain in Bhagalpur in Bihar and President Pranab Mukherjee’s son Abhijit in Jangipur in West Bengal were involved in Thursday’s round.

The important part of today’s polling was the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu where BJP and a clutch of regional parties have firmed up a rainbow alliance projected by opinion polls as having a realistic chance of bagging six to seven seats.

The BJP was set to make gains in two big states in the south and east that could help it build a stable majority in Parliament. A final set of opinion polls predicted a strong showing by the BJP and its allies in Tamil Nadu in the south and West Bengal in the east that could make it less dependent on the two women who rule those states and who have in the past proved to be fickle coalition partners.

BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, is riding a wave of public anger across India against the ruling Congress party over a slew of corruption scandals and a slowing economy.

In the previous parliamentary poll five years ago, DMK had won 18 seats and AIADMK nine. Some opinion polls have projected Jayalalithaa-led party to secure 24 seats this time and if that comes true, she will be a key factor in forming the next coalition government at the centre in the event of a fractured electoral mandate.

Finance minister P Chidambaram’s son Karti, DMK’s A Raja, prime accused in 2G spectrum case, and senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar are among some of the key candidates in Tamil Nadu this time.

The 19 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra, which went to poll, including six in Mumbai, are crucial as the state’s ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance is projected to be struggling in the state which has a total of 48 seats.

Mumbaikars shed some of their known polling-day apathy with 53 per cent voter turnout and overall, around 56 per cent of 3.18 crore voters exercised their franchise to decide the fate of 338 candidates including union minister Milind Deora, sitting MPs Priya Dutt and Sanjay Nirupam of Congress, social activist Medha Patkar and ministers in Prithviraj Chavan government Chhagan Bhujbal and Sunil Tatkare.

The turnout in Mumbai was a significant improvement over 2009 Lok Sabha elections when only 41.43 per cent electorate exercised their franchise.

In West Bengal, a third of voters picked Modi as their first choice for prime minister ahead of state chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who leads a regional group. Her party is expected to win the most seats at stake in the state.

Banerjee was an ally of the ruling Congress coalition until late 2012, when she walked out in protest against its decision to allow foreign supermarket chains into India's $500 billion market.

Both Jayalalitha and Banerjee are seen as belonging to parties to which Modi could turn in case he falls short of a majority in the national vote.

However, both are likely to extract their pound of flesh Modi's image remains tarnished by Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat, the western state where he is chief minister, on his watch 12 years ago. More than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in the violence.

Modi denies accusations that he failed to stop the riots and a Supreme Court inquiry found he had no case to answer. In an interview with ANI television news on Wednesday, Modi accused reporters of smearing him over the riots.

Congress, led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, is forecast to suffer its worst-ever defeat after a decade in power due to the economic slowdown, high inflation and repeated graft scandals. The party has ruled India for more than 50 of its 67 years of independence.

A former media adviser and a former coal secretary have both released books in recent days that paint prime minister Manmohan Singh as a well-intentioned but weak figure who answers only to party president Sonia Gandhi.

“It’s only a dynasty, like previously we had kings ruling,” said PV Padmanabhan, a 79-year-old retired electricity board official who has voted in every Indian election, and was lining up to vote at the eastern Bangalore polling station.

“They have to give it to somebody else. (Leaders) should not only come from Nehru's family.”

Indian elections are notoriously hard to forecast due to the diverse electorate and a parliamentary system in which local candidates hold great sway. Opinion polls wrongly predicted a victory for a BJP-led alliance in elections in 2004 and underestimated Congress’s winning margin in 2009.

Voter turnout has averaged 68 per cent so far, the election commission said on Wednesday, versus 58 per cent across the whole election in 2009.

Modi’s party is also looking to make a dent in the south and east to pull off an outright majority, something that no party has been able to achieve in nearly two decades.

"This election we are expecting a significant contribution from the south," said former BJP president Venkaiah Naidu, adding that the party wanted to lift its southern tally to 50 seats from 19 in the last election in 2009.

"We are trying to get a majority of our own. Otherwise, we will have to take the support of the regional parties and the day-to-day running of government will not be trouble-free," said BJP general secretary JP Nadda.


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