India polls: Election chief hits back at Narendra Modi's charge of bias

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India's election commission hit back Thursday at claims of bias from frontrunner Narendra Modi, saying it "deplored" attempts to undermine its neutrality in the final stages of the marathon contest.

"There shall never be a situation or an occasion where the commission will deviate from neutrality," V.S Sampath, the head of the commission, said at a press conference in New Delhi.

"We also deplore any attempt by anyone to cast aspersions on the constitutional institution like the Election Commission of India at a very sensitive time like the present one that could cause long term damage to the independence and neutrality of the commission," he added.

Mr Sampath's comments came after Mr Modi accused the commission of bias by not sanctioning one of two rallies that the Bharatiya Janata Party leader had planned to stage in Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, on Thursday.

After accusing the commission of a failure to ensure "free and fair polls" in the last three phases of the six-week election, Mr Modi said Mr Sampath's organisation had been "acting partially".

Mr Modi, who is contesting for parliament in the holy city on the banks of the Ganges, was allowed to address another rally elsewhere in Varanasi which votes on Monday.

But the commission said it would not allow him to address supporters in the centre of the city on security grounds after his last such appearance drew crowds of more than 100,000.

Mr Modi, a hardline Hindu nationalist, is widely expected to lead his party to victory in the general election and win the contest in Varanasi when results are announced on Friday, May 16.