NEW DELHI • Millions of Indians began voting yesterday in regional elections seen as the first major test of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party after his controversial move to ban high-value currency notes last year.
Five Indian states will elect new governments over the next five weeks in a multi-phased election, with voting kicking off in northern Punjab and coastal Goa in the west yesterday.
Mr Modi's bold move to ban the notes that made up 86 per cent of the currency was aimed at curbing widespread tax evasion, but has also dented growth and caused widespread pain to the millions of Indians who lack access to formal banking.
His personal popularity has remained high well into his first term, but the elections are seen as a test of its endurance.
In a tweet yesterday, the Hindu-nationalist leader called on voters in the first phase to exercise their right to vote. "Urging people of Punjab and Goa to turn out in record numbers and vote in the assembly elections," he wrote.
Residents were seen queueing outside polling booths across both states, where more than 40 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots to elect a total of 157 legislators.
Massive security arrangements were in place to ensure violence- free voting, with hundreds of thousands of security personnel on guard outside polling stations.
Mr Modi's party is likely to lose in Punjab, where it has been in power alongside its regional alliance partner since 2007, but where a turnaround for the centre-left opposition Congress party is possible.
Mr Rahul Gandhi, the 44-year-old Nehru-Gandhi family scion who is seen as the party's next head, has pulled out all the stops to revive its fortunes, facing criticism after a series of state election defeats.
"It is the most important election for the Congress party, which needs a victory on its own," said Ms Nistula Hebbar, political editor with The Hindu newspaper. "The erosion of its political support has been spectacular. More than anyone, Rahul Gandhi needs a standalone victory to silence critics both outside and within the party," she added.
But the biggest test for Mr Modi will be in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won big in the 2014 general election.
The state is important because it sends the highest number of MPs to the Upper House of the national Parliament, where the BJP currently lacks a majority.
The northern state of Uttarakhand and Manipur in the north-east will also elect new governments, with results for all five states due on March 11.
"The immediate conclusion that can be drawn for the BJP is whether the larger politics behind demonetisation... has worked or not," said Mr Kanchan Gupta, commissioning editor with ABP News.
"It would also be a reflection of whether, in these 21/2 years, the national government has been able to perform with a credibility that overwhelms the performance of individual state governments."