Chief Election Commissioner VS Sampath said 814 million people will be eligible to vote, a number larger than the population of Europe, making this the biggest election the world has ever seen. The results are due to be announced on May 16.

Voting will be held over nine days to allow security forces to focus their strength during an exercise that, for decades after independence from Britain in 1947, has often been marred by violence and ballot-rigging.

Running on his strong economic track record as Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi has emerged in opinion polls as the favourite, reflecting popular anger over corruption and a sense that the Congress-led UPA government frittered away opportunities for rapid growth after coming to power in 2004.

Exuding self-confidence, Modi has won the support of many middle-class Indians who even a year ago would not have voted for a man accused by critics of failing to stop or even tacitly encouraging a spasm of Hindu-Muslim bloodshed in Gujarat in 2002. Modi has denied any wrongdoing and the Supreme Court has said there is not enough evidence to pursue the investigations.

With half of India's population under 25, a record number of first-time voters is expected to participate in the election and many appear open to Modi's promises of job creation and efficient government.

"I think everyone is looking for strong leadership. This places Modi at an advantage. He is showing that he is a strong leader," said Mohan Guruswamy of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Delhi-based think-tank.

Recent polls show the BJP well short of a majority of the 543 Lok Sabha seats at stake but widening its lead over the ruling Congress party, which may now be headed for its worst-ever electoral defeat.

 

THIRD FRONT

A multi-headed group of regional parties is also eyeing power. A ‘Third Front' government made up of regional groups with diverse agendas could prove unwieldy, a potential problem for Asia's third-largest economy, whose growth has skidded due to the slow pace of reform on the Congress party's watch.

Leading the campaign for the Congress party is Rahul Gandhi, the latest in line in the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has given India three prime ministers and its most powerful contemporary politician, his mother, Sonia Gandhi.

This time, after two consecutive Congress-led governments headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the country seems unlikely to make another Gandhi the prime minister.

Adding to the uncertainty, a new anti-corruption party has emerged as a serious player. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is not likely to win many seats but is setting the agenda for other parties by harping on high utility prices and crony capitalism.

The election comes as the economy is on course to grow at below five percent for the second year running, which would be the worst performance since the 1980s for a country that a few years ago was confident of matching China's run of double-digit expansion.

Modi has the backing of big business, which wants him to replicate his Gujarat state model of good roads, 24/7 electricity and less red tape. Last week, he promised to simplify laws if elected and to put trade at the heart of foreign policy.

As the election drumbeats get louder, overseas investors have extended a buying streak of shares, totalling $800 million in a run of 13 sessions until Tuesday.

Businesses have put investment plans on hold ahead of the elections, leading to a contraction in capital formation and worsening a slowdown that could, however, be reversed after results are declared in May.

"Irrespective of who wins, pent-up demand is set to be released after the elections are over," HSBC said in a research note.

"Companies that have shelved expansion plans will at some point start investing and hiring,” HSBC said.

Indian voters: 176 mn in 1952, 814 mn in 2014

The number of Indian voters has shot up from 176 million in the first general election held in 1952 to some 814 million in 2014, Sampath said.

Sampath told the media that the increase in the number of voters since the last Lok Sabha polls of 2009 was about 100 million.

An estimated 81.4 crore voters will be eligible to vote.

NOTA to be provided in general elections

Voters will, for the first time, be able to exercise the "None of the Above" (NOTA) option for candidates in the Lok Sabha polls, the Election Commission said.

Chief Election Commissioner VS Sampath said the entire election will be held using electronic voting machines (EVMs), and that the NOTA option will also be provided.

"The 2014 Lok Sabha polls shall be held with EVMs," he said, adding that appropriate instructions will be issued regarding the NOTA facility.

The option was first made available in the November-December Assembly Polls in five states last year.

(JPN/Agencies)

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