Millions vote in India’s riot-scarred Gujarat state

December 17, 2007 - 0:0

AHMEDABAD (AFP/IANS) -- Millions in India’s religiously divided Gujarat state voted in closely-guarded elections as exit polls predicted a Hindu hardliner accused of aiding deadly riots will be re-elected.

Polling for the crucial second and final round of the 182-member Gujarat assembly elections ended Sunday evening.
The second phase included 95 assembly constituencies in central and northern Gujarat with 599 candidates including Chief Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
As the polling began in the morning, people were coming out slowly on a windy Sunday but the voting picked up as the day progressed.
More than 18 million people are eligible to vote for 95 seats in the state’s legislature in the second and last stage of the polls.
Para-military forces were deployed to help police provide security.
Elections for 87 seats were held on Tuesday, when nearly 60 percent of 17.9 million voters cast ballots. Results are expected next Sunday, with the controversial Modi expected to be re-elected.
The campaign has been overshadowed by renewed allegations that Modi encouraged anti-Muslim riots in 2002 in which at least 2,000 people were hacked, burnt and shot to death.
Exit polls from the first round have said that the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -- to which Modi belongs -- would win re-election but see its majority cut.
“The BJP will win with a huge margin... I am confident that it will be a historic win,” Modi told reporters after casting his vote.
Of the 87 seats up for grabs on Tuesday, the BJP was expected to see its share cut from 54 to between 40 and 48 due to gains by Congress, which governs India at the federal level, television news channels said, quoting exit polls.
Star News network said the BJP would keep control of the state with 115 seats of the total 182, while Congress would bag 64 constituencies at the end of both rounds of polling.
In the last elections, the BJP swept the polls with 128 seats after Modi fought the election on an aggressively anti-Muslim platform in the aftermath of the riots. Congress won just 51 seats.
This time, however, Modi sought to shift the focus of the election campaign by highlighting the economic gains made by the affluent state.
But Modi courted controversy again when he was quoted as condoning the extra-judicial killing of a Muslim man falsely accused of plotting to assassinate him.
India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, of the Congress party, said there was an “atmosphere of fear” in the state.
The Congress party has been campaigning on the twin agendas of secularism and economic development -- with party leader Sonia Gandhi denouncing Modi’s administration as a “merchant of death.”
The 2002 riots, which mainly targeted Muslims, erupted after 59 Hindu pilgrims died in a train fire first blamed on a Muslim mob but which an inquiry later concluded was accidental..