By Shyamantha Asokan
DIBRUGARH, India (Reuters) - The first Indians cast their votes on Monday in the world's biggest election, with Hindu nationalist opposition candidate Narendra Modi holding a strong lead but likely to fall short of a majority.
Some 815 million people are registered to vote over the next five weeks as the election ripples out in stages from two small states near Myanmar to include northern Himalayan plateaus, western deserts and the tropical south, before ending in the densely-populated northern plains. Results are due on May 16.
Elderly women in saris and young men in jeans and polo shirts lined up outside a dilapidated sports center in Dibrugarh, a river town in the tea-growing state of Assam, one of two states to vote on Monday.
"We need a change, someone who will come and change the whole scenario," said handbag shop manager Ashim Sarkar, 35.
During high-octane campaigning at well-attended rallies the length and breadth of India, Modi has been promising to jumpstart a flagging economy and sweep out the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has ruled India for most of the period since independence in 1947.
"The proposals in the manifesto have the power to lift the nation from the ditch that it has fallen into, it has the power to give momentum to a nation that has stalled," Modi said at the New Delhi launch of his party's manifesto.
Turnout in the five constituencies in Assam that went to the polls on Monday was 75 percent. Voting ended at 5 p.m. and was peaceful, the chief election officer for the state told Reuters.
Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and allies are forecast to win the biggest chunk of the 543 parliamentary seats up for grabs, but fall shy of a majority, according to a survey released last week by Indian pollsters CSDS. In such an outcome, a coalition government led by the BJP is seen as likely.
An efficient administrator, Modi is liked by big business in a country entangled in red tape.
Overseas investors have bought Indian shares worth $4.46 billion and bonds worth $5.8 billion in 2014, in part on the hope the BJP will come to power. Indian shares hit a record high on April 3 and the rupee rose to 59.5950 on April 2, its strongest in eight months.
But Modi is tainted by accusations that he failed to stop or even encouraged anti-Muslim riots in 2002 in the state of Gujarat, where he is chief minister. At least 1,000 people died in the violence, most of them Muslims.
Modi has denied the charges and a Supreme Court inquiry found no evidence to prosecute him. On Monday he said he would govern for all Indians, but his moderate image-building was dented when election authorities demanded a key campaign manager explain inflammatory statements against Muslims.
DEFEAT FOR CONGRESS
Surveys suggest a resounding defeat awaits the ruling Congress party led by Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, after the longest economic slowdown since the 1980s put the brakes on development and job creation in a country where half the population is under 25.
India's remote northeast, a border region of eight states home to 27.4 million voters, is a test case for the appeal of Modi's promises to fill India with new highways and fast trains and to take a tough line on frontier disputes with neighbours. China claims sections of the region.
"Young people can't find good work here - the jobs available are just picking tea leaves," said Jyotirmoy Sharma, a manager at a tea factory who lives in Lahoal village near Dibrugarh. He voted for the ruling Congress party in India's last two national elections in 2004 and 2009 but will switch to Modi this time.
Northeast India is one of the few remaining strongholds for Congress. The CSDS poll found that almost half of voters in Assam, who have one of the country's lowest per capita incomes and often rely on the center-left Congress' welfare schemes, are set to support the party.
But Congress might not do as well as in the last election, said Hiren Gohain, a social scientist based in the state capital Guwahati.
"They dole out money and help and that has created some loyalty - but it won't work on everyone," he said, citing the slow pace of infrastructure projects such as the Bogibeel Bridge near Dibrugarh, which was started by the last BJP-led coalition government 12 years ago and remains unfinished.
The debate in New Delhi is focused on whether Modi can win enough seats to secure a stable coalition with increasingly powerful regional parties and push through promised reforms.
India's diverse electorate and parliamentary system mean that local leaders - and local issues such as their caste or ethnic group - still hold great sway. In some constituencies this could stymie the BJP, which has run a presidential-style campaign focused wholly on Modi.
"I vote for the local candidate - that is who affects my life," said Shanti Naik, a woman selling biscuits and shampoo sachets at a stall in Lahoal who said she planned to vote for Congress. "Whoever is in Delhi, it doesn't bother me."
(Additional reporting by Biswajyoti Das; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Andrew Roche)