India kicked off monthlong voting as five states go to polls that are considered a test for opposition leader Narendra Modi, as his party seeks to build support before nationwide general elections next year.
The central province of Chhattisgarh, which has been wracked by decades of Maoist insurgency, will hold voting today and on Nov. 19, with results scheduled on Dec. 8. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is fielding Modi as its star campaigner, while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress is deploying Rahul Gandhi as voters in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Rajasthan also go to polls this month and next.
Modi, nominated as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in September, has been holding political rallies across the five states that account for almost a sixth of the nation’s population. The BJP is forecast to win power in two of them and retain two, including Chhattisgarh, according to an opinion poll published by India Today and ORG last week.
“It’s a semifinal match and will set the tone and mood before general elections,” said Sandeep Shastri, pro-vice chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore.
Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, is projecting his record of governance and stronger-than-average economic growth in the state he has ruled since 2001 in an attempt to propel his party to national power. Singh’s Congress party has attacked him over his handling of the 2002 riots in the state that killed about 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.
The state polls will be the last lap for the parties in the race for federal elections that must be held by May. Last month, a Times Now and C-voter survey found that the BJP’s opposition alliance would top Singh’s ruling coalition in next year’s election, with neither winning a majority in the 545-member lower house.
About 27 people, including the Congress party’s leader of Chhattisgarh, were killed in an ambush by communist insurgents in a May attack in the state. The rebels said they targeted Congress leaders who had supported paramilitary police offensives against the group.
Singh, besieged by graft allegations against his administration, avoided alienating voters and a political ally in Tamil Nadu by choosing to stay away from a summit in Sri Lanka this week.
Regional parties in the southern Indian state, which share cultural and religious links with Tamils in Sri Lanka, have pressed Singh to take a tougher stance against the island-nation over alleged war crimes.