India: It's Modi versus Ghandis in world's biggest election
But Indian PM still expected to lead his party to win in national polls
NEW DELHI: India starts a mega-election tomorrow with Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking on not one but two Gandhis in the world's biggest vote.
A tea-seller's son, Mr Modi, boosted by February's bust-up with Pakistan, remains popular, but he is vulnerable on the economy and his re-election depends on several key regions.
Some 900 million Indians can vote between tomorrow and May 19 from the troubled snowy peaks of Kashmir to Rajasthan's deserts and the tropical Andaman Islands.
The "festival of democracy", as Mr Modi calls it, needs seven phases, with thousands of parties and candidates running in 543 constituencies across the nation of 1.3 billion people.
It is staggered partly because of the risk of violence, with over 100 politicians or party officials murdered in 2016, and armed insurgencies raging in at least nine states.
Mr Modi, 68, and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power in 2014, the first party to win an absolute majority since the Congress party led by Mr Rajiv Gandhi did it in 1984. Some of his promises have fallen short, particularly in rural areas where drought, low prices and loan sharks have driven thousands of farmers to kill themselves in recent years.
The economic policy most voters remember, the withdrawal of high-value banknotes worth 86 per cent of the cash in circulation overnight in 2016 to try and bring the shadow economy into the light, caused mayhem. He has however made it easier for foreign firms to do business in India, and carried out the biggest tax reform since independence, although this too had big teething problems.
But economic growth has been too slow to give jobs to the million Indians entering the labour market each month, and unemployment is reportedly at its highest since the 1970s.
Mr Rahul Gandhi, 48, hoping to become the latest Prime Minister from his dynasty - and aided by sister Priyanka - has accused Mr Modi of causing a "national disaster".
Mr Gandhi's Congress party has profited from voter dissatisfaction, winning three key state elections in December, chipping into Mr Modi's core support base in the Hindi "Cow Belt" regions.
But Mr Modi's popularity rose in February with the worst confrontation between India and Pakistan in years over Kashmir as the nuclear-armed arch rivals conducted tit-for-tat airstrikes.
Anyone even questioning India's actions against Pakistan is given short shrift, including on social media, a major battleground in a country where WhatsApp has its biggest market.
"Any critic of the government finds themselves under attack in one way or another," said Mr Gilles Verniers, political science professor at Ashoka University. - AFP
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