Gujarat set to seal fate of hardline leader

A final phase of voting began on Sunday in the western Indian state of Gujarat in an election that will decide the fate of its controversial chief minister and could influence the timing of national polls.

Gujarat set to seal fate of hardline leader

Amid tight security, early voters queued up outside election stations on a chilly winter morning in districts which were at the eye of 2002 communal riots and which swept Narendra Modi and his pro-Hindu message to power in their aftermath.

The religious divide which runs through parts of Gujarat was plain for all to see.

"Modi is our only choice. He is the star of Gujarat," said 35-year-old businessman Mayank Patel as he waited to vote in the state's main city Ahmedabad.

"He is the saviour of Hindu religion."

A few kilometres away, the mood was very different.

"Made us widows"

"Modi has made us widows and our children are orphans, that's the great work he's done," said Fatima Begum, a Muslim resident of the city's Juhapura area. "I want him to face defeat forever."

Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) remain favourites to win the state despite exit polls after the first round of voting in southern districts showed he had lost seats to the rival Congress party.

It's expected to be a close fight, but analysts say Modi's Hindu-revivalist, anti-Muslim message still resonates in many of the central and northern regions voting on Sunday, and that could carry him home for a third term in office.

A total of 18.7 million people are eligible to vote in 95 constituencies on Sunday, out of 182 in the state. Results are expected on Dec. 23.

Gujarat, one of India's richest and fastest growing states but also one of its most communally divided, is being closely watched as a barometer of the fortunes of the country's two main parties ahead of national elections.

They are due by mid-2009 but could come earlier with the Congress-led ruling coalition in New Delhi wobbling under pressure from key communist allies who oppose a nuclear energy deal with the United States.

Hindu-Muslim divisions

Modi, who stands accused of encouraging the riots in 2002 in which between 1,200 and 2,500 people were killed, most of them Muslims, is contesting a seat in Ahmedabad.

Television channels showed hundreds of cheering supporters greeting him as he turned out to vote.

Both the Congress and BJP began their campaigns by stressing the importance of development but were soon engaged in a bitter war of words over Hindu-Muslim divisions.

Congress chief Sonia Gandhi branded Modi's government "merchants of death."

Modi, who grabbed 127 of the 182 seats in the state assembly last time round, shot back, accusing the Congress government of being soft on Muslims, and apparently justifying the extra-judicial killing of a Muslim man.

The Supreme Court and the independent election commission are investigating.

Agencies

Güncelleme Tarihi: 16 Aralık 2007, 13:05
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