Voters in India's western state of Gujarat are to decide the political future of Narendra Modi, Gujarat's chief minister who is accused of turning a blind eye to anti-Muslim riots five years ago.
|Modi is credited with spuring Gujarat's|
rapid economic growth [AFP]
Some 17.9 million voters are expected to cast their ballot as voting begins early on Tuesday in the first leg of a two-phase poll.
In the vote, 669 candidates are vying for seats in the 182-member state assembly. The remaining 95 constituencies will vote on December 16.
Modi is campaigning for the re-election of his Bharatiya Janata Party government (BJP), which hopes a win in Gujarat will jumpstart the party's flagging national fortunes.
He is credited with helping to spur the rapid economic development of Gujarat, but his critics accuse him and his government of standing idle when religious riots seized the state in 2002.
Non-governmental organisations say at least 2,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed in the riots and that many of the bodies were hacked up and burnt.
The riots erupted after 59 Hindu pilgrims died in a train fire whose origin remains a subject of dispute.
Modi has denied all wrongdoing in the riots.
Even so, the Congress, India's ruling party, has denounced him as a "merchant of death" and is campaigning in Gujarat's elections on the twin planks of economic development and secularism.
The BJP remains popular in Gujarat, though analysts say the election race will be tight.
|Muslim survivors of the 2002 riots say Gujarat's|
development has bypassed them [AFP]
More than 50,000 federal police, assisted by local security personnel, will keep a close eye on 19,924 polling booths on Tuesday to ensure there are no irregularities.
Some 4,834 polling stations have been identified as "sensitive", an election official said.
"We have done our best to ensure a level playing field," Navin Chawla, the election commissioner, said.
He appealed to all political parties not to incite "communal" or "caste" passions.
During his 2002 campaign, Modi fought on an anti-Muslim platform in the aftermath of the riots and swept the polls, winning 128 of 182 legislative seats.
Shankarshan Thakur, editor of India's Tehelka magazine, told Al Jazeera said that Modi's re-emergence would disappoint many people in the state.
"To me and a lot of the people here it is not a good thing that a man like Nerendra Modi should be coming back to power, because he has created a Gujarat that is totally divided," he said.
"The Muslim population, which is about 12 to 13 per cent in this state, lives under threat all the time. They have no civil rights, many of them live in camps, they have no sense of security. Narendra Modi and his party make it very clear that they don't apsire for the Muslim vote."
Results of this years elections are due on December 23.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies