India hosted its biggest day of voting on Thursday with the ruling Congress party battling to stem a further slide in the polls against the opposition Hindu nationalists after another week of damaging headlines.
An Indian election official distributes red roses to Christian nuns during voter registration in Ranchi on April 17, 2014
Voters lined up in 121 constituencies across a dozen states on the sixth day of staggered voting in the election extravaganza which ends with results May 16.
Over 195 million voters were eligible to cast ballots, a quarter of the 814-million-strong electorate, with the key battleground states of northern Uttar Pradesh and southern Karnataka in play.
"It's a very important election, as it will decide the country’s future, the idea of India and its philosophy," billionaire first-time candidate Nandan Nilekani told AFP in IT hub Bangalore.
Nilekani, who made his fortune co-founding outsourcing giant Infosys, is standing for Congress in the city where inflation, corruption and sharply slowing economic growth are key issues.
Congress, in power for two terms since 2004, is widely expected to lose to the resurgent opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by hardline Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi.
The 63-year-old barrel-chested leader, chief minister of prosperous Gujarat state in western India, insists only he can revive the faltering economy.
A new survey this week showed for the first time the BJP and its allies attaining a majority in the 543-seat parliament.
India's economic slowdown -- the economy has posted sub-five percent growth for two years in a row -- was on many voters' minds.
"I'm thinking of voting BJP to help its leader Narendra Modi become prime minster and work for the country as he did for Gujarat," said Bangalore college lecturer Geetha Loganathan.
"I want Modi to be the next prime minister as I'm sure he'll help youth like me get a job," added new voter Vinay Kumar, 19, a Bangalore student.
Meanwhile, the ruling Gandhi political dynasty has stepped up attacks on Modi.
Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, whose daughter Priyanka and son Rahul are also campaigning, told voters Wednesday Modi represented a "dangerous combination of religious fanaticism, power and money".
Vice-Congress president Rahul accused Modi of "crony capitalism".
- 'Modi does not lose' -
Priyanka, whose recent appearances have overshadowed her brother, accused the BJP of trying to divide the country on religious grounds.
While drawing focus away from her brother, Priyanka has also been sucked into a war of words with her estranged cousin Varun, a BJP candidate, accusing him of "betrayal" of the family's secular beliefs.
Senior BJP figure Arun Jaitley said opinion polls pointing to a Hindu nationalist win showed "the family charisma has faded".
In more bad news, a new book by an ex-aide to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, hit stores, portraying the 81-year-old economist as a puppet picked by Sonia who did little to prevent graft in his cabinet.
Elsewhere Thursday, voters cast ballots in the crucial battleground state of Uttar Pradesh, the western desert state of Rajasthan and central Chhattisgarh, where a weekend Maoist rebel attack left 14 dead.
The second phase of voting there was marked by a bomb attack on a railway line that disrupted travel but caused no casualties, the Press Trust of India reported.
Modi struck back late Wednesday at the Gandhi family's attacks, saying it was their "obsession to pull Modi down".
"But Modi does not lose, does not die," he said, referring to himself in the third person, according to local media.
His Hindu nationalist rhetoric and failure to swiftly curb 2002 deadly anti-Muslim riots that swept Gujarat while he was chief minister have stirred worries among critics about his ability to maintain secular peace.
Modi has never been found guilty by official investigations of any wrongdoing over the riots in which at least 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, died.
He rejected demands he apologise for the riots, saying he committed no crime.
"If I am guilty, hang me in the street square," he said.
He added Muslims in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi where he is seeking a parliamentary seat "love me when they meet me".
Modi said the BJP would score its "best" victory while the "useless and corrupt" Congress faced its "worst" defeat.