India's mammoth parliamentary election will start on April 7, authorities announced on Wednesday, kicking off a race that will pit charismatic Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi against the unpopular Nehru-Gandhi family's ruling Congress party.
Chief Election Commissioner V.S. Sampath said 814 million people will be eligible to vote, a number larger than the population of Europe, making this the biggest election the world has ever seen. Results are due to be announced on May 16.
Voting will be held in nine stages, staggered until May 12 to allow security forces to focus their strength during an exercise that, for decades after independence from Britain in 1947, has often been marred by violence and ballot-rigging.
Running on his strong economic track record as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, Modi has emerged in opinion polls as the favorite, reflecting popular anger over corruption and a sense that the center-left Congress government frittered away opportunities for rapid growth after coming to power in 2004.
Exuding self-confidence, Modi has won the support of many middle-class Indians who even a year ago would not have voted for a man accused by critics of failing to stop, or even tacitly encouraging, a spasm of Hindu-Muslim bloodshed in Gujarat in 2002. Modi has denied any wrongdoing and the Supreme Court has said there is not enough evidence to pursue investigations.
With half of India's population under 25, a record number of first-time voters is expected to participate in the election and many appear open to Modi's promises of job creation and efficient government.