DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Voters in India streamed to the polls today in stage one of a nearly six week long national election. India is the world's largest democracy; 814 million people are eligible to cast ballots. After 10 years in power, Sonya Gandhi's ruling Congress Party is struggling to connect with many people in the country, while the charismatic and controversial opposition leader, Narendra Modi, is stirring the electorate with promises of change. Here's NPR's Julie McCarthy.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: A wooden boat lazily paddles the holy waters of the Ganges River, flowing before the fabled steps or cots of the sacred city of Varanasi. The serene surface belies a roiling election that has spotlighted this ancient city. Nowhere is Hinduism more on display than here in Varanasi. Rows of priests beneath neon parasols perform prayers for the pilgrims who swarm to the water's edge. India's center of religion and spirituality is also ground zero for this year's national election.

Narendra Modi, the popular and contentious leader of the main opposition BJP, chose this repository of Hindu civilization to seek a seat in parliament that could propel him to the prime minister's chair. Modi has sidestepped any overt mention of religion, largely galvanizing Indians with a call for economic revival along the lines of the western Indian state of Gujarat where he is chief minister.

India eyes China's booming economy with envy, while its own growth has slipped below five percent. Thirty-year-old film actor Tilak Raj Mishra says the young are especially keen to see Modi take power.

TILAK RAJ MISHRA: (Through interpreter) First of all, Narendra Modi's a great personality. He has got a vision, an idea, a vision for development of the progress of this country. We, the people of India, only want to see development, nothing but development.

MCCARTHY: But critics say Narendra Modi's development has enriched the business class, but not Gujarat's millions of poor. In a scathing attack, the heir to the Gandhi political dynasty, Rahul Gandhi, who is leading his Congress Party's campaign, slammed the Gujarat model of development at a recent rally on Modi's home turf.

RAHUL GANDHI: (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: Children are dying, but they say Gujarat is shining. Shining, but for whom, asks Sonya Gandhi's son. Not for children, not for unemployed youth, not for women. It is definitely shining, he says, for 10 to 15 industrialists. Back in Varanasi, members of the Muslim community also worry about religious discord with Modi at the helm. The prime ministerial hopeful is a self-declared Hindu nationalist whose beliefs were influenced at an early age by Hindu fundamentalists.

In 2002, under Modi's watch, Hindu-Muslim riots erupted in Gujarat and killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. Modi has never apologized. The violence marked the 63-year-old as a polarizing figure. M.Z. Haque leads a Muslim academy for young boys and girls, and he is nervous that a Modi victory could aggravate communal tensions again.

M.Z. HAQUE: We feel that we will be separatists. Separatists economically, educationally, as the Gujarat Muslims feel.

MCCARTHY: But Modi is not without his Muslim backers. Kalime Ashraf, a weaver and a Muslim, says a lack of modern machinery is hurting Varanasi's once prosperous sari business. He expects Modi to modernize the industry and Ashraf says like-minded Muslims have not problem voting for Modi.

KALIME ASHRAF: (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: That is not an issue at all. I support Modi because of development, Ashraf says. His model is successful. He's a good man. It's a good party, and I'm tired of the politics of division. Independent India was forged in religious division. The partition in 1947 that cleaved Muslim Pakistan out of predominantly Hindu India displaced millions and left hundreds of thousands dead.

Spasms of religious violence arise each year.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

MCCARTHY: On the outskirts of Delhi last week, Modi held the crowd enthrall. They chanted his name while he picked apart his opponents on the subject of secularism. He mocked Sonya Gandhi and her Congress Party's bid to unify Muslims on behalf of her party. Gandhi appealed last week to the Imam of Delhi's main mosque not to split the Muslim vote for the sake of secularism.

But Modi accused Gandhi of exploiting religious differences to achieve a political end.

NARENDRA MODI: (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: The Congress Party realizes that no one in this country is going to buy their shallow slogan of secularism, Modi roared. That's why on the verge of defeat, he said, the Congress Party is now looking for votes along communal lines. Congress has attempted to paint Modi as a divider, willing to stoke religious acrimony, but for many voters, the economy is paramount and corruption scams worth billions have tainted the Gandhis' party.

Pollsters see a Modi wave washing over India and a crashing defeat coming for Congress, the oldest political party in India. Regardless of party, candidates have consulted the stars. Astrologer Neelam Agrawal reads politicians' charts and their chances to win and says now Saturn is aligned with the tormentor, Rahu.

NEELAM AGRAWAL: So that creates a lot of good things for a lot of people, but a lot of difficult things for a lot of people.

MCCARTHY: So turmoil.

AGRAWAL: Turmoil, and you can the turmoil.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

MCCARTHY: Musical troupes, sound trucks, nightly television, who's up, who's down debates, all part of the cacophony of the campaign. India's former chief election commissioner, SY Quraishi, is the author of "An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election." He says no effort is spared to reach the masses with ballots, be it elephants, camels, boats, planes or trains.

SY QURAISHI: You name it and that is the transport we are using. And there are some places where none of these transports will go. Then polling teams have to walk.

MCCARTHY: He says not even the lone priest living in a lion-infested forest will be left without a voting booth. Pity the poor poll watcher. Counting takes place mid-May. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.

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