New Delhi - India hosted its biggest day of voting on
Thursday in its marathon election, with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty battling to
save the ruling Congress party from defeat to opposition Hindu nationalist
leader Narendra Modi.
Voters lined up at 07:00 in 121 constituencies across a
dozen states where more than 195 million voters are eligible to cast ballots in
the largest single day of polling in the five-week election which ends 12 May.
"The polling has started at 07:00 on a peaceful
note," said Umesh Sinha chief electoral officer of key battleground state
Elsewhere voters cast ballots for the first time in the
southern city of Bangalore, home to IT giants Microsoft and Google, which is a
key battleground between the Congress and opposition Bharatiya Janata Party
In central Chhattisgarh, where an attack by Maoist
insurgents left 14 dead at the weekend, the second phase of voting on Thursday
was marked by a new bomb attack on a railway line in the Bokaro district which
Modi under fire
The key polling day comes after India's most famous family
cranked up the rhetoric in a bid to claw back support from Modi, saying the BJP
candidate was a threat to the nation's secular foundations.
The Nehru-Gandhi clan, which has dominated the country since
independence from Britain in 1947, has emerged fighting with Congress president
Sonia Gandhi, daughter Priyanka and son Rahul all on the campaign trail.
Surveys have suggested Congress, under Rahul's leadership,
is heading for a crushing defeat at the hands of the right-wing BJP.
Sonia, aged 67, the left-leaning Congress party matriarch,
told voters Modi would rip India's secular fabric, accusing him of representing
a "dangerous combination of religious fanaticism, power and money".
Priyanka, aged 42, seen as the most gifted politician of
India's so-called "first family" which has given the country three
premiers, said Modi would spread divisions between the majority Hindu and
minority Muslim communities.
"The ideology of Congress is to unite people and
maintain the unity of the country while that of the opposition is to
divide," she said.
India 'first family' feud
Priyanka has strongly taken up the torch for India's secular
identity, accusing her estranged cousin Varun Gandhi, a BJP candidate, of
"betrayal" of the family heritage in a headline-making feud this
Rahul, aged 43, has accused Modi of displaying "anger
Modi's Hindu nationalist rhetoric and failure to swiftly
curb 2002 deadly anti-Muslim riots that swept Gujarat state when he was chief
minister have stirred worries among critics about his ability to maintain
The BJP leader has never been found guilty by official
investigations of any wrongdoing over the riots in which at least 1000 people,
mainly Muslims, died.
Modi, aged 63, struck back late on Wednesday at the Gandhi
family's attacks, saying it was their "obsession to pull Modi down".
"But Modi does not lose, does not die," he said,
referring to himself in the third person, according to local media.
He rejected demands that he apologise for the riots, saying
he committed no crime.
"If I am guilty, hang me in the street square," he
He added Muslims in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi where he
is seeking a parliamentary seat "love me when they meet me".
Polls favour BJP
Modi, who has declared only he can revive India's sagging
economy, said the BJP would score its "best" victory while the
"useless and corrupt" Congress faced its "worst" defeat.
An opinion poll by NDTV network this week forecast the BJP
would win 226 seats and with its coalition allies grab over 50 percent of the
Voters have turned against Congress over massive graft
scandals, spiralling inflation and the sharp economic slowdown, polls indicate.
Premier Manmohan Singh, aged 81, a respected economist
handpicked by Sonia after she returned Congress to power following a nearly
decade-long stint in the political wilderness, has been portrayed in a new book
by his ex-press aide as a powerless puppet.
Congress said the decision to wheel out Sonia and Priyanka,
who easily outshines her brother Rahul, was part of an earlier mapped strategy
but analysts say it smacks of desperation.