Indian Kashmir heads to polls as PM Narendra Modi's BJP eyes power

Plain-clothed Indian police personnel search Kashmiri supporters as they arrive for an election rally by the newly launched Peoples Republician Party (PRP) in Srinagar on Nov 24, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Plain-clothed Indian police personnel search Kashmiri supporters as they arrive for an election rally by the newly launched Peoples Republician Party (PRP) in Srinagar on Nov 24, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

SRINAGAR, India (AFP) - Indian Kashmir heads to the polls on Tuesday amid tight security with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party eyeing power for the first time in the tense and disputed Muslim-majority state.

More than one million residents are eligible to vote in the first stage of staggered elections in the Himalayan region, claimed by both India and Pakistan and the scene of two wars between the rival neighbours.

Voting starts at 8am (10am Singapore time) in 15 constituencies near the de-facto border that divides Kashmir along with the remote Ladakh region, home to mostly Buddhists, where temperatures have dropped to below freezing.

Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is staging a bold attempt to seize control of the Jammu and Kashmir state's 87-member assembly, a move that would have been unthinkable until very recently.

The party has traditionally had no base in the Kashmir Valley where residents' resentment against Indian rule runs high.

About a dozen rebel groups have been fighting Indian forces since 1989 for Kashmir's independence or for its merger with Pakistan. Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have died in the violence.

But Mr Modi's landslide win at national elections in May and a meltdown in support for incumbent Chief Minister Omar Abdullah after deadly floods in September have given the BJP hope of a breakthrough.

Separatist hardliners have called for a boycott of the vote, a move that could play to the BJP's advantage. Hindus are a minority in Kashmir but their votes take on extra importance if many Muslims stay home in protest on polling day.

The BJP staged a media advertising campaign in the lead up to the election, with large banners on the highway running through the valley promising "peace and development".

But analysts said the BJP may have overplayed its hand, predicting the blitz would prompt anti-BJP voters to turn out rather than boycott.

"The BJP has always been very proactive in Kashmir, but the media blitzkrieg and the euphoria (this time around) could boomerang to the advantage of the regional parties," Mr Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a political analyst who teaches at the Central University, said.

Thousands of soldiers have been deployed in and around polling stations amid fears of street protests or militant attacks.

Most separatists have either been arrested or confined to their houses in the lead-up to the election, while police have also detained dozens of youths at stations in areas where voting will be held, a police officer told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Jammu and Kashmir will vote in five phases with results due on Dec 23.

The insurgency-wracked and impoverished central state of Jharkhand also heads to the polls on Tuesday where the BJP is also attempting to seize power.

Army and police officers have been deployed in force at polling stations for the first phase of the election there amid fears of attacks from Maoists.

Rebels have long been fighting authorities for land, jobs and other rights for poor tribal groups in a conflict that has cost thousands of lives.