An elderly Indian woman displays her indelible ink mark on her finger after casting her vote outside a polling station during the first phase of elections in Dibrugarh, in the northeastern state of Assam, India, Monday. / Altaf Qadri, AP
NEW DELHI - India's more than 800 million voters went to the polls Monday in what many predict will be a historic upset for the country's long-ruling Congress party, which has run India with little interruption since the world's biggest democracy won independence in 1947.
Recent polls show that Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is likely to win big, possibly an outright majority in a country where the parties usually have to join coalitions to take over the government.
The reason appears to be disillusionment with the direction of India.
Once a much admired center of economic growth, India has fallen down on new jobs and investment. Foreign corporations have pulled back activities amid bureaucratic corruption and poor government handling of utilities, transportation and education.
"Many Muslims, like me, are tired of the Congress's empty promises," said Mohammed Syed, 48, who runs a small publishing house in Muslim majority Old Delhi.
"We have been voting for this party since independence, and still our community is one of the poorest, and least educated. Young people are drawn toward Modi because they believe he will bring jobs."
India will vote in stages over the next five weeks in a staggered approach made necessary by the country's vast size. Voters will choose representatives for the 543-seat lower house of Parliament. Results should come in May.
On Monday, the BJP blamed "a lack of direction and political will" for what it called India's "decade of decay" under the Congress party.
The BJP has been promising to rebuild cities, improve Internet access, remove obstacles to business development and reform tax policy to make it easier for businesses to plan.
"For the Congress it's a lost cause. They know a defeat is around the corner; they are just trying to soften the blow," said Sanjay Kumar, director of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, a research institute.
The BJP's Modi has been credited with overseeing strong industrial growth in the western state of Gujarat, where he has been chief minister for 11 years.
India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has led the country for a decade, has been characterized by the opposition as a weak leader who has let India's stature in the world plummet. Singh is not running for re-election; Rahul Gandhi is the chief candidate for the Congress Party in Monday's election.
Singh has lashed back, tarring Modi for the massacre of as many as 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat riots in 2002 when Hindus went on the attack after hearing false rumors that Muslims had set fire to a train, killing 58 Hindus.
"If by strong prime minister you mean that you preside over mass massacre of innocent citizens on the streets of Ahmedabad, if that is the measure of strength, I do not believe that's kind of strength this country needs, least of all in its prime minister," he responded earlier this year to his "weakness."
Modi has never been charged with any crimes in the killings though his top aides have been arrested. The Gujarat Police were accused of allowing it to happen by failing to intervene, and worse, collaborating with the rioters.
Some say that means Modi will be rejected by the country's 138 million Muslims.
"It's not hard to see that he has a bias against the community, and it's a violent bias," said Hamza Khan, 19, a student at Jamia Milia University in New Delhi.
"What's troubling is that many Muslims have decided to support him, because they think he will improve their economic conditions. Maybe he will be good for the Indian economy, but I don't think he will do anything to help the Muslim voters."
In 2005, the United States denied a visa to Modi, under an American law that censures any foreign official who "was responsible for or directly carried out ... particularly severe violations of religious freedom." The ban still stands but U.S. officials say it is likely to be lifted if Modi wins the elections, which are expected to last a month.
Shahi Imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari, head of New Delhi's Jama Masjid mosque - one of the most prominent religious leaders in India - has pleaded with Indian Muslims to vote for the Congress.
"We have complaints against Congress but that doesn't mean we will vote for people who want to divide the country," he said last week. "The nation is in danger from (extremist) forces. We should ensure the (moderate) vote is not divided."
Yet bringing India back may be what propels Modi nonetheless.
Gujarat has recorded an impressive average growth of 13.4%, nearly double the national average of 7.8% over the past decade. Modi's pro-business policies have attracted investments in crucial sectors like energy and auto manufacturing.
The state offers smooth tarred roads unlike other states, and a 24-hour electricity supply. Now, Modi promises to the same for India.
"Modi is the only leader who has presented an extensive economic agenda for India - no other leader has done that," said Mumbai-based author and Modi fan, Chetan Bhagat. "I think his model of governance and economy is the best. It would create large number jobs in the country which is good for the youth."
Meanwhile, the Congress government has been hounded by one controversial corruption scandal after another over the past five years. Politicians and civil servants are accused of taking up to $12 billion in bribes.
Economic growth has dropped almost by half to 5% in 2013, and reforms have been slow in coming, voters grumble. Million remain jobless, and basic services such as water and electricity are not accessible to large parts of the country.
And Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family - one of the most powerful political families in the world - is not the ideal candidate to oppose Modi, say analysts.
The dynasty has ruled India almost continuously since independence and produced three former prime ministers. Rahul Gandhi's mother, Sonia Gandhi, is considered the most powerful woman in the country. Yet, the heir apparent - as the media sometimes call him - has failed to strike a chord with the voters.
Many Muslims and non-Muslims alike say a win for Modi could tear the country apart.
"If development is to be financed by (a political win) bought by a harsh sub-nationalism and communal-ethnic triumphalism for a leader vastly intolerant of disagreement and dissent and (who wants) an artificial, restrictive homogeneity imposed on politics and society, then some of us believe the price is too high for India," political commentator Mihir S. Sharma wrote in the Business Standard - an Indian daily newspaper.
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