NEW DELHI — The biggest election in world history begins Monday in the Himalayan foothills of northeastern India, with Narendra Modi’s opposition party poised to win the most seats as it looks to regain power after a decade.
About 815 million voters, roughly the populations of the U.S. and European Union combined, are eligible to cast ballots in nine rounds of voting over the next five weeks to pick 543 lawmakers. Results will be known May 16 in the nation of 1.2 billion people, where about two-thirds live on $2 per day.
“People are restless for growth and development,” said Jai Mrug, an independent political analyst in Mumbai who conducts opinion polling. “India’s image, progress and economy have been hampered due to a lack of decision making.”
India’s stocks and currency have rallied in recent weeks on the prospect that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party will form a stable coalition and revive Asia’s third-biggest economy. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress party has seen its popularity fall as graft cases, Asia’s fastest inflation and subdued economic growth erode support.
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Investors pumped $11 billion into India this year, optimistic the new government will revive growth that slowed to a decade-low.
The election will be the most expensive in Indian history, with the government, political parties and candidates spending $5 billion, according to estimates from the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies. While the election commission caps spending for each candidate, often much more is spent.
Voting starts in the northeastern states of Assam and Tripura, where parties will contest six parliamentary constituencies that account for less than 1 percent of the population. It will conclude May 12 with 41 seats, including Varanasi, one of two constituencies that Modi will contest.
Gathering votes in the world’s seventh-biggest land mass isn’t easy. Election officials must traverse forests, deserts, glaciers and seas to meet a requirement that polling stations be set up within 1.2 miles of every voter.
In Tripura, a state bordering Bangladesh, 10,000 security personnel will guard 1,605 polling stations, said Ashutosh Jindal, the state’s chief electoral officer.
“In spite of some constraints on getting vehicles, telecom connectivity and concerns for security, we are putting all efforts to ensure free, fair and peaceful elections,” said Jindal. “It’s a massive exercise.”
Some of the biggest challenges will be in Arunachal Pradesh, a northeastern state bordering China that will vote later in the week. Porters must carry electronic equipment to a mountainous village to set up a polling station for only two voters, said Genom Tekseng, an official in the state’s election office. Seven government employees will oversee the process.
Helicopters will be used to transport medicines, food, wireless communications, voting machines and election staff to certain areas with rugged terrain, Tekseng said. The materials are then taken by foot to polling stations in remote areas.
In total, the Election Commission of India is setting up 919,000 polling stations and will use 3.6 million electronic voting machines. That’s up from 800,000 polling stations and 2 million voting machines in the 2009 election.
Of the 815 million registered voters, 23 million are between 18 and 19 years old, constituting 2.8 percent of the national electorate. Since 2009, about 100 million new voters have been added to electoral rolls.
Modi, 63, is promoting his image as a magnet for investment and a record of stronger-than-average growth in the state of Gujarat he’s ruled since 2001. Congress party leaders say he’s an autocrat who failed to control deadly anti-Muslim rioting in Gujarat in 2002. He’s denied wrongdoing.
Rahul Gandhi, 43, is leading the Congress campaign with a message that highlights the government’s record of spending on programs ranging from cheap food to guaranteed work in rural areas. Gandhi is the scion of the Jawaharlal Nehru-Indira Gandhi dynasty that has led India for most of its history since independence in 1947.
The party has promised poorer voters rights to health care and housing in its manifesto, while pledging to restore growth in Asia’s third-biggest economy to more than 8 percent within three years.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its coalition partners are forecast as many as 246 seats in the lower house of parliament, shy of the 272 needed for a majority, according to an opinion poll released on April 4 by CNN-IBN and The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
Congress and its allies would get as many as 123 seats, the poll said. CNN-IBN didn’t give a margin of error or say how many people it surveyed.
“The size of victory for Modi is very important” said U.R. Bhat, managing director of the India unit of U.K.-based Dalton Strategic Partnership, which manages $2 billion globally. “If he doesn’t have to depend upon some very demanding regional parties, then the responsibility will be his alone to meet people’s expectations for economic growth and development.”
The polls bolster the sense of inevitability that is beginning to envelop Modi. Although he has long faced accusations that he did not intervene to stop deadly anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, he has recast himself as a clean, business-friendly politician whose state has posted impressive economic growth.
The Congress Party has relied on support from rural Indians, whom it has boosted with food subsidies and entitlement schemes. But in a troubling sign for the party, more than half of those Pew surveyed said that the BJP would do a better job than Congress in aiding the poor.
If Modi comes to power, it would create some uncomfortable questions for the United States, which until recently had observed an official boycott of the firebrand leader and had denied him a visa due to his alleged role in the 2002 violence.
In February, the U.S. ambassador to New Delhi, Nancy Powell, broke the chill by requesting a meeting with Modi in his home state. State Department officials described the encounter as cordial, but many within the U.S. government still regard Modi with suspicion.
When President Obama visited India in 2010, he called the warming relationship between the two nations the “defining partnership of the 21st century.” Decades of disagreements, from Cold War ideological battles to squabbles over the United States’ close relationship with India’s archrival, Pakistan, would take a back seat to the many shared interests of two of the world’s largest and most diverse democracies.
But almost four years later, the U.S. and India have found themselves on opposite sides of the world’s most important diplomatic issues, from the crisis in Ukraine, in which India came to Russia’s defense, to a long-awaited vote to investigate Sri Lanka’s government for atrocities committed at the end of its civil war (India abstained).
Even critical military coordination over the reduction of troops in nearby Afghanistan has suffered.
Relations soured over the December arrest and strip-search in New York City of Devyani Khobragade, an Indian consular official, on charges of submitting false documents to obtain a work visa for a housekeeper whom she then severely underpaid.
The arrest infuriated senior members of India’s diplomatic service, many of whom had paid their maids comparably when posted in New York, a plum assignment. For them, the arrest was one of a series of U.S. actions deemed insensitive here.
Last week, Powell announced her resignation after a 37-year diplomatic career. While she told a gathering at the embassy that her departure was unrelated to growing problems with India, she had become a focus of unhappiness among Indian diplomats and politicians.
Obama and Prime Minister Singh have demonstrated affection for each other, with Obama calling Singh his guru and Singh referring to Obama as a personal friend.
But Singh is not expected to remain as prime minister past May, no matter who wins coming elections, and he has all but disappeared from Indian politics in recent weeks.
U.S. business leaders, including companies such as Ford and General Motors, which have built plants in Gujarat, are said to be broadly supportive of a Modi prime ministership. Ultimately, his supporters say, a stronger Indian economy is in the United States’ best interest.
Includes material from The New York Times and Los Angeles Times