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    India election

    India elections to begin April, as resurgent Modi faces Gandhi heir

    Kashmir airstrikes give ruling BJP a boost, with contrasting foreign policies on the line

    Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, and main opposition Indian National Congress President Rahul Gandhi   ? Reuters

    NEW DELHI -- India is set to hold general elections from April 11 to May 19 in seven phases, with all votes to be counted on May 23, the country's election commission announced on Sunday.

    In the world's biggest exercise in democracy, with 900 million potential voters eligible, Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces off with opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, often described as the "prince" of the storied family that has produced multiple prime ministers since the nation's independence in 1947.

    Up for grabs will be 543 seats of the lower house in India's bicameral Parliament, with an additional two members nominated by the president.

    Modi is hoping to secure a second five-year term. Analysts say the country's Feb. 26 airstrike on what New Delhi alleges was a terrorist training camp inside Pakistan may have bolstered his prospects.

    The strike came in response to a Feb. 14 suicide bombing in the Indian-controlled part of the disputed Kashmir region that killed 40 paramilitary police. Modi's swift retaliation seems to have erased recent gains of the main opposition, the Indian National Congress.

    A party or a coalition needs 272 seats to form a government. In the last national elections held in 2014, Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party won 282 seats, or a 52% majority, the first time in 30 years that a single party held a majority.

    The National Democratic Alliance -- which the BJP heads -- held 336 seats, giving the prime minister political stability not seen in recent years to carry out his policies.

    The battle will be between Modi, who has been riding on a "strong leader" image since the airstrikes, and Gandhi, who leads a party that has ruled India for 55 of the 72 years since independence.

    BJP sources and local journalists predict that the BJP's seats will likely fall to around 30% to 40% of the total, making it potentially possible for the Congress party to form a ruling coalition if they can team up with rural parties.

    The outcome will have major implications for the South Asian country's foreign policy. Modi's government has maintained an assertive stance toward neighbors with hints of regional hegemony. If victorious, Modi is seen to continue teaming up with like-minded democracies such as the U.S.. Japan and Australia to form an alliance that competes with China's "Belt and Road" infrastructure plan.

    The Congress party, on the other hand, has traditionally adhered to a neutral, equal-distance policy in its relationships with all countries.

    To handle the 900 million voters, over 10 million election officials will fan out across the country of 1.3 billion people to man about one million polling stations. In the last elections, 66.4% of 814 million registered voters cast ballots.

    Late last year, the Congress party won state polls in the former BJP bastions of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, as distressed farm communities and jobless youths shunned Modi's party.

    After its strong showing, Congress looked primed to capture more ground in the national polls but the Feb. 14 bombing and subsequent airstrike caused an upsurge of popular support for Modi.

    The opposition has accused the prime minister of politicizing the Kashmir attack, as Modi has mentioned it often in recent speeches.

    The upcoming election will serve as a barometer of the prime minister's more controversial policies, such as demonetization and the roll out of a goods and services tax, both of which rocked the economy. Last year, the government also introduced an ambitious health care program targeting low-income people.

    Just ahead of the polls, in moves widely viewed at wooing voters, the Modi government launched a scheme to supplement farmers' incomes, and also said it would reserve 10% of government jobs and academic admissions for poorer members of India's upper castes.

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