April 4, 2016 / 9:37 AM / 3 years ago

India's ruling party in tight fight in border state as voting begins

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party will fall short of a majority in a border state after a tense anti-immigrant campaign, an opinion poll showed as voters on Monday trickled into polling booths in the first phase of a five-state election.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) gestures as he arrives to address the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers meeting in Guwahati, Assam, November 30, 2014. REUTERS/Utpal Baruah/Files

A disappointing showing in northeastern Assam, the only state where the ruling party has a chance to win power, will be a further blow to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambition to consolidate strength in parliament and push reforms.

Last year, Modi lost an election in the big northern heartland state of Bihar to a united opposition that has blocked his moves to reform state taxes and land transfers and deliver on his promise of rapid growth and jobs.

The BJP is forecast to win 55 seats in the 126-member Assam state assembly, the poll by India TV-CVoter showed, more than its rival Congress, but not enough to win power.

The party ran a fierce campaign to disenfranchise millions of Muslim immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, long an emotive issue with Assam’s Hindus who say they have taken away jobs and enjoy government welfare programs.

Assam is one of the seven states in India’s northeast that border Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Myanmar, and the BJP’s political rivals say it is trying to whip up divisive politics in the volatile region.

“People don’t want politics of confrontation,” said Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, a leader of the Congress party. “How can there be any development if there is this kind of atmosphere?”

Critics have long accused the BJP of a bias against minority Muslims and of trying to push a partisan agenda to undermine India’s secular constitution. The BJP says it is opposed to appeasement of any community.

The elections are also being held in the eastern state of West Bengal, and in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry in the south. The BJP trails in these areas dominated by regional parties, although its vote share is expected to rise in West Bengal, where party workers have toiled in villages for years.

By noon, a third of voters in Assam and nearly 45 percent in West Bengal had cast their vote, the election commission said.

Additional reporting by Biswajyoti Das in GUWAHATI; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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