As riot-hit Muzaffarnagar votes, religious divide favours Hindu nationalist Modi

April 11, 2014

(Men stand in a line to cast their vote outside a polling station during the general election, in Shahpur in Muzaffarnagar district in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh April 10, 2014. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee)

Manoj Balyan wants Narendra Modi to become India’s next prime minister when results of a general election are released next month, and not because of the pro-business opposition leader’s record as a credible economic manager.

Instead, the property broker and village chieftain is drawn to Modi’s Hindu nationalist side, believing the candidate will strip privileges from India’s minority Muslim population.

“With Modi taking office, Muslims will automatically feel the pressure. They will not dare to raise their voice,” said Balyan, 42, to nods of approval from a group of friends.

Such views are common in settlements around the sugarcane belt of Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, which was hit by deadly religious strife last year.

The election is spread out over five weeks, with the last day of polling on May 12. It was the turn of around 130 million voters across the country, including in New Delhi, on Thursday.

Two police officers were killed in an election-related attack by Maoist militants in Bihar. But by the end of the day there had been no reports of major violence during polling in Muzaffarnagar, where Modi’s popularity is running high and Muslims are worried about their future.

For many of the 815 million registered to vote, Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) represent a promise of better governance, industrial growth and job creation.

But Modi, 63, is tainted by accusations that he encouraged or turned a blind eye to Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 in Gujarat, the state he has governed for 13 years. He has denied the charges and the Supreme Court has said there is not enough evidence to prosecute.

The BJP’s contention that other parties help Muslims at the expense of the Hindu majority has become an increasingly prominent part of its campaign in recent weeks – notably in areas where religious tensions run high.

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