A worker rolls up a ballot paper to be pasted outside a booth in Ghaziabad, near Delhi, India, on Wednesday. Associated Press
India went on high security alert Wednesday ahead of the start of its marathon election, after a campaign dominated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership that has focused on keeping the country safe from attack.
India banned the release of a biopic about Modi during the country’s marathon elections after complaints that the flattering portrayal would give the ruling party an unfair advantage.
In a win for the opposition, India’s Election Commission barred the cinematic release of the film until voting concludes on May 19.
Under Indian election law, during the 48 hours before a state votes, the publication of any content deemed as campaigning — including adverts, films and even social media — requires Election Commission approval.
A bomb blast on Tuesday blamed on Maoist rebels killed five people, including a lawmaker campaigning for Modi, heightened fears of election bloodshed.
Some 80,000 troops, police and paramilitaries will be deployed in troubled Chhattisgarh state — where the attack was carried out — when voting starts on Thursday, state police chief D.M. Awasthi said.
Maoist rebels are behind many of the long-simmering insurgencies in at least nine Indian states.
But the Election Commission, which organises the world’s biggest democratic election with 900 million eligible voters choosing 543 MPs, insisted the attack would not change its schedule.
Seats in 20 states will be decided on the first of seven days of voting spread over six weeks.
Modi’s right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seeking a second term, defending a landslide win over the opposition Congress party in 2014. The result is predicted to be close however.
Chhattisgarh is among sensitive states where polling is staggered over several weeks so security and administrative staff can be moved around.
Rahul Gandhi, scion of India’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, filed his nomination papers on Wednesday following a roadshow in his home constituency of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.
Gandhi was flanked by his mother, Sonia Gandhi, the widow of assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who is running as a Congress candidate from Rae Bareli, another city in Uttar Pradesh. He was also joined by his sister, Priyanka Gandhi, the Congress party manager of the eastern half of Uttar Pradesh, and her husband, businessman Robert Vadra.
Thousands of party workers accompanied the Gandhis in a massive road show on Wednesday, carrying flags with the Congress’ party symbol — an outstretched hand — and dancing to drum beats. Others stood on balconies or climbed onto vehicles for a better view or to toss flower petals.
“Treat it just as a victory procession,” said Congress worker Rajesh Prajapati.
Amethi goes to the polls on May 6. The last vote is on May 19 and the results will be announced on May 23. Various opinion polls have indicated an alliance led by Modi’s BJP will win up to 273 of the 543 parliament seats at stake, just one more than the required majority.
The killing of a local leader of a Hindu nationalist group in Jammu and Kashmir on Tuesday reinforced fears of trouble during voting. Parts of Kashmir will also vote on Thursday.
Gunmen burst into a Jammu hospital and shot dead the regional leader of the right wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is closely linked to Modi’s party.
Tensions also simmered in the eastern state of Odisha where two landmines were recovered by patrols, and in nearby Bihar where two roadside bombs were detonated.
Kashmir hit the headlines ahead of the election after 40 paramilitaries were killed in a suicide attack in February.
Modi has used India’s action against Pakistan to bolster his strongman image and divert attention from criticism over a lack of jobs across the country and a farmers’ debt crisis.
At a rally on Tuesday, Modi urged first-time voters to dedicate their ballot to the military who staged the air strike inside Pakistan.
Congress said the speech breached an Election Commission order that political parties should not use the armed forces for propaganda.
A biopic of the prime minister has also caused controversy, with the opposition Congress party waging a legal battle to prevent the showing of what it has called unfair propaganda.
In the fourth phase, the BJP will be defending 45 of the seats it won in the 2014 Lok Sabha battle — 13 in Rajasthan, 12 in Uttar Pradesh, eight in Maharashtra, five in Madhya Pradesh, three in Bihar, three in Jharkhand and one in West Bengal.
More than 100 million people across seven states are eligible to vote in the sixth phase of the 39-day-long poll, which Modi began on April 11 as front-runner after an escalation of tension with neighbouring Pakistan.
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