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India sets dates for world's biggest election

NEW DELHI -- India, the world's largest democracy, announced Wednesday it would stage a five-week election from April 7 that is expected to bring Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi to power on a platform of economic revival.

Voting for the 543-member parliament is set to take place in nine phases until May 12 with counting scheduled four days later on May 16, when the ruling Congress party faces a likely defeat.

The biggest election in history will see 814 million adults eligible to vote, from the remote Himalayas in the north to India's tropical southern tip — 100 million more than last time in 2009.

The Election Commission chose the dates taking into account the availability of security forces to guard the nearly one million polling booths, as well as the onset of India's scorching summer.

Chief Election Commissioner V.S. Sampath appealed for “high standards of political discourse and fair play in the course of the campaign” as a model code of conduct came into force.

The contest will pit Modi, son of a tea-stall owner from the western state of Gujarat, against Rahul Gandhi, the Harvard and Cambridge-educated scion of the dynasty which has dominated post-independence politics.

After two terms of coalition government led by Gandhi's leftist Congress party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Modi is widely forecast to emerge as the largest party in the new parliament.

“The nation wants development, progress, it wants low inflation and the people want to rid themselves of this corruption,” senior BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters after the dates were announced.

Modi wrote on Twitter that the “poll bugle has been sounded” and urged voters to seize “a historic opportunity to lay (the) foundation of a developed India.”

The leader of Gujarat since 2001 is seen as a pro-business reformer but his Hindu nationalism and links to anti-Muslim riots worry religious minorities and defenders of India's officially secular character.

The 63-year-old, who rose through grassroots Hindu organizations, is publicly pitching a message of jobs and development to a country struggling with decade-low economic growth, high inflation and still endemic poverty.

His main opponent in the Congress is the relatively untested Gandhi, the son, grandson and great-grandson of former prime ministers who is leading the party into a national election for the first time.

Gandhi is currently vice-president of the Congress but would be expected to be named prime minister if his party wins a third term.

Opinion polls show Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat when anti-Muslim riots left more than 1,000 dead in 2002, holds a large advantage over his bitter rival.

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India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, left, and Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan shake hands during a public rally in Muzaffarpur, in Bihar state, India on Monday, March 3. (AP)

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