Voters in eastern India were out in force yesterday for the first phase of elections in five states that Prime Minister Narendra Modi hopes will give him a much-needed victory to increase the influence of his ruling party and stem his recent losing streak.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is not in power in any of the five states and even a win in one of them would be a victory for a leader whose reform agenda, such as a goods and services tax, has been stifled by a lack of majority in the federal Parliament's Upper House. State elections determine the composition of the Upper House.
The BJP's best bet is the tea-producing state of Assam after landslide defeats in Delhi and Bihar state elections last year. Still, a win in Assam would not immediately give the BJP a majority in the Upper House.
"If the ruling government does perform well, it will provide some momentum and give a thumbs up to the (reform) policies that are being undertaken," said Mr Shivom Chakrabarti, senior economist at HDFC Bank in Mumbai.
"It is a high-stakes battle for the BJP... after last year's elections losses," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, pro vice-chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore.
If the ruling government does perform well, it will provide some momentum and give a thumbs up to the (reform) policies that are being undertaken.
MR SHIVOM CHAKRABARTI, senior economist at HDFC Bank in Mumbai, on BJP securing a win in Assam.
NO EASY GOING
The chances are it will be a close call. It will be quite a blow to the BJP if it cannot make any headway in Assam. It is the only state where it has a chance.
MR AMULYA GANGULI, Delhi-based political analyst, on the ruling party's chances in the tea-producing state.
Voter turnout was high yesterday as millions stood in long queues amid tight security at polling stations in 65 out of 126 constituencies in Assam, and 18 out of 295 constituencies in West Bengal.
By late afternoon, voter turnout in Assam and West Bengal had crossed 70 per cent in the staggered elections in which nearly 170 million voters are eligible to vote in five states that also include Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry between yesterday and May 16.
Opinion polls have predicted anything from a win to the largest number of seats for the BJP in Assam, which borders Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The Congress, which has been in power for three terms in Assam, has been beset by infighting while the BJP, which has tied up with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People's Front, had rolled out an aggressive campaign, promising to stop illegal migration from Bangladesh.
Still, analysts say the going might not be easy for the BJP in Assam and that it may not be able to move beyond its core supporters among the Hindu middle class.
"The chances are it will be a close call," said Delhi-based political analyst Amulya Ganguli. "It will be quite a blow to the BJP if it cannot make any headway in Assam. It is the only state where it has a chance."
In West Bengal, Trinamool Congress chief and current Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is expected to have the best shot at winning, according to opinion polls; while in Tamil Nadu, Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa appears to have the winning edge. Opinion polls have predicted a left-led alliance win in southern Kerala.
But the recent collapse of a flyover in Kolkata, West Bengal's capital city, in which 26 people were killed could hurt Ms Banerjee in urban areas, said analysts.
Despite the odds, the BJP was hopeful about its chances.
"We will improve our position in all the five states," finance minister Arun Jaitley said at a briefing last week.
The five states contribute 51 seats of the 250-seat upper house in New Delhi. The results for all the states will be out on May 19.