SRINAGAR, India (AFP) - Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to bring prosperity to Indian Kashmir and told people not to be intimidated against voting, as he hit the campaign trail Monday after a string of attacks in the region.
Modi's Hindu nationalist party is making an unprecedented bid for power in the Muslim-majority region, where tensions are high following the killing of 11 soldiers and police in an attack last Friday.
His right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been campaigning aggressively in staggered state elections that began last month, promising to bring security and development to a region that has suffered almost three decades of violence.
"Just look back at the last 30 years. What have you got? Nothing," Modi told a campaign rally in the main city Srinagar, which was under virtual lockdown with thousands of extra troops deployed.
"There is only one way ahead: development." Earlier, Modi said voters should not be scared off by a recent upsurge in violence, which India blames on Pakistan-backed militant groups.
"Our soldiers have sacrificed their lives to safeguard democracy," he said at an election rally in the southern Jammu area of the state.
"You must ensure that their sacrifices are safeguarded. The power of your finger is greater than the power of an AK 47." The BJP has traditionally had no base in the Kashmir Valley, where local resentment against Indian rule runs high.
But Modi's landslide win in national elections in May on a pledge to revive the economy, along with a meltdown in support for the Kashmir chief minister after deadly September floods, have raised the party's hopes.
"When a natural calamity hits, people find themselves helpless. Our government will get you out of those miseries," Modi said in Srinagar, seeking to capitalise on huge resentment at the state government's response to the disaster.
The prime minister also pledged to bring justice to Kashmir, where rights groups have long accused India's army of acting with impunity.
In a symbolic move, Modi spoke in Srinagar at the venue chosen by India's only other BJP prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, for a 2003 speech pledging reconciliation with Pakistan and peace in Kashmir.
He said his party would develop Kashmir's tourism and hydropower industries to bring much-needed economic development.
"Kashmir is economically sick and emotionally wounded," said Hina Bhat, one of the party's 32 candidates.
"The BJP wants to work for development first, the political issue of Kashmir comes later," said Bhat, referring to its longstanding pledge to scrap a constitutional provision known as Article 370, which allows Kashmir to make its own laws.
"People here want employment and a few hours of clear water supply, many don't understand what 370 is about," Hina told AFP.
Analysts say the BJP is almost certain to fall short of an outright majority in the 87-member assembly. But they also say it has drawn up a strategy to win big in the Hindu-majority Jammu area, and then cut a deal with one of the smaller Muslim parties to become the lead player in a coalition.
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah accused the BJP on Monday of bussing in supporters from Jammu to swell the numbers at Modi's rally in Srinagar.
"Two trainloads of supporters are being brought in from Banihal in Jammu. Why not just have the rally there?" he tweeted.
Picturesque Kashmir - divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both - has seen a surge in violence during the staggered elections for the local legislature.
The first two rounds saw turnout reach more than 70 percent as voters ignored calls for a boycott, but Tuesday's voting will be the first since last week's attacks.
India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence over Kashmir. About a dozen rebel groups have been fighting Indian forces for independence or a merger of the territory with Pakistan since 1989.
Separatist groups called for a general strike to mark Modi's arrival in Srinagar, saying the people of Kashmir would "never relinquish their demand for self-determination".
The BJP has taken an aggressive line on the separatists. A party hoarding at the 9,000-capacity stadium where the premier spoke promised that "separatism will be defeated".