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India general election voting begins on April 11, officials say

   (Insider Bureau)- India announced on Sunday a general election to be held over nearly six weeks starting on April 11, when hundreds of millions voters will cast ballots in the world's biggest democracy.
Some 900 million voters from the Himalayan peaks to the deserts and tropical shores are eligible to vote for a new government for the next five years in an enormous democratic undertaking.
From April 11 to May 19 voters will elect 543 lawmakers to India's lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha, which governs the Asian nation of 1.25 billion people from the capital New Delhi, the electoral commission said. Counting will be completed and the final results announced on May 23, it added.
The election will see Prime Minister Narendra Modi run for a second term against Rahul Gandhi , the latest scion of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty to seek leadership of the world's second-most populous nation.
They are the two strongest challengers from a field of hundreds of political parties from across the culturally and geographically diverse country of 1.25 billion.
Modi, whose right-wing party won an outright majority in the 2014 elections, enters the race in a strong position and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hopes to decimate Gandhi's left-leaning Congress party once again.
His Hindu-nationalist political machine is riding on Modi's personal popularity and an array of emotive issues.
In recent weeks he has been able to bolster his nationalist credentials in India's most serious stand-off with Pakistan in years, sparked by a
suicide bombing
in the disputed Kashmir region on February 14 that killed 40 Indian paramilitaries.
The deadliest attack on Indian forces in a 30-year-old insurgency in the part of Kashmir that New Delhi controls was claimed by a militant group based in Pakistan, one of many that India and others have long accused Islamabad of harbouring.
Twelve days later the Indian air force bombed what New Delhi said was a training camp of the group deep inside Pakistan, the first time since 1971 that India hit territory beyond Kashmir.
Doubts have been raised about what the raid achieved, and when Pakistan carried out its own air raid a dogfight ensued and an Indian aircraft was shot down and its pilot captured by Pakistan. But Modi has shrugged this off and continued to talk tough, accusing the opposition of being weak.
"We won't spare anybody who is looking to destroy our country even if their (terrorists') chiefs are sitting on the other side of the border," Modi told a recent rally in his home state of Gujurat. "But the oppositions have a problem with such stern actions too. But I am going ahead with my resolve to root out terrorism."
The 68-year-old prime minister has also sought to contrast his humble origins as a tea seller against Gandhi, the 48-year-old privileged half-Italian princeling of India's most famous family.
But opinion polls have suggested ebbing support for the BJP and it may fall short of the 272 seats it needs to form a government on its own.
Gandhi, long criticised as a lacklustre leader, has also started looking more recently like a serious challenger Congress, which has ruled India for much of its time since independence from Britain in 1947, won three key state election victories in December, chipping into Modi's core support base in the Hindi "Cow Belt" regions home to nearly half a billion voters.
He has also gone on the offensive over Modi's economic record, with Congress state wins attributed to the prime minister's perceived failure to help impoverished farmers and create jobs.In the 2014 elections, 830 million people were eligible to vote but only 550 million cast their ballots.

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