MUZAFFARNAGAR, INDIA (AFP, REUTERS) – Indians began voting in the first phase of a mammoth general election on Thursday (April 11), with Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking a second term after campaigning strongly on his national security record following a flare-up in tensions with Pakistan.
Reuters reporters saw long queues outside many polling stations.
The Election Commission said voters were turning out in large numbers in an eastern district where Maoist insurgents were blamed for a bomb attack on Tuesday, which killed a state legislator from Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and four security officials.
Two people were also killed on Tuesday in Jammu and Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state, prompting the authorities to increase security even further.
Shadab Ali, an 18-year-old first-time voter in the volatile Muzaffarnagar constituency in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, queued with a group of friends at a polling station set up in a primary school.
Hindu-Muslim riots there killed at least 65 people before the previous election in 2014.
“Modi has worked but not done enough for us,” said Ali, a Muslim. “We want development. I’ve voted for development.”
Voters came to three polling stations in Muzaffarnagar on foot, by bicycle and motorcycle, in cars and on tractors.
Voting in the first of seven rounds is being held in 91 parliamentary constituencies across 20 states and federally administered regions. There are 543 seats at stake.
Almost 900 million of India’s 1.3 billion people are eligible to vote. The first phase of voting covers an electorate of 142 million, some of whom will vote in pink booths staffed by female security personnel and polling officials.
The election is spread over 39 days, with the final phase on May 19 and the result announced four days later.
Modi’s BJP is the front runner despite economic distress over mounting unemployment and weak farm incomes in rural areas, where two-thirds of Indians live. Modi said on Twitter as voting began the mood nationwide was running in favour of his alliance.
Pollsters say support for the BJP rose in response to Modi’s tough stance against Pakistan. Aerial clashes between the nuclear-armed neighbours followed a Pakistan-based militant organisation’s suicide attack in February that killed 40 paramilitary police in disputed Kashmir.
The main opposition Congress party has sought allies among regional parties to defeat the BJP over its record on the economy.
Congress wrested three major farming states from the BJP in state polls in December by promising to waive the outstanding loans of distressed farmers.
However, the upsurge in nationalist fervour has undermined its strategy. “I support the prime minister’s policies, especially his foreign policy,” Sachin Tyagi, 38, a mobile phone shop owner, told Reuters near a polling station in Uttar Pradesh, which sends the most lawmakers to the Lower House of Parliament among all states.
“He’s improved India’s global standing and taken revenge against the enemies of the country. I am happy with Modi-ji but the employment situation could be improved,” he said.
Mr Modi has simplified the tax code and made doing business easier but some of his promises have fallen short, particularly in rural areas where thousands of indebted farmers have killed themselves in recent years.
Growth in Asia's third-biggest economy has been too slow to provide jobs for the millions of Indians entering the labour market each month, and unemployment is reportedly at its highest since the 1970s.
Rahul Gandhi, 48, hoping to become the latest prime minister from his dynasty - aided by sister Priyanka - has accused Mr Modi of causing a "national disaster".
Mr Gandhi's Congress party has profited from voter dissatisfaction, winning in December three key state elections, chipping at Mr Modi's core support base in the Hindi-speaking heartland of northern India.
Playing to its Hindu base, the BJP has committed to building a grand temple in place of a Muslim mosque demolished by Hindu mobs in the northern city of Ayodhya in 1992.
But most importantly, India's latest military altercation with arch-rival Pakistan in February has allowed Mr Modi to portray himself as the "chowkidar" ("watchman") protecting mother India.
"Nationalism is our inspiration and inclusion and good governance is our mantra," Mr Modi, whose stern bearded face stares out from ubiquitous posters, said at the launch of his manifesto.
But opinion polls are notoriously unreliable in India and much will depend on the BJP's performance in several key states, in particular Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
"It's difficult to predict," said Mr Parsa Venkateshwar Rao, a veteran journalist and political commentator.
"It reminds me of 2004 when (premier Atal Bihari) Vajpayee and the BJP lost when everyone expected them to win," he told AFP.
However, Gilles Verniers, a political science professor at Ashoka University near New Delhi, predicted Congress would still struggle to catch the BJP.
“The gap between Congress and the BJP is still enormous, so no one is seriously thinking that Congress is going to fill that gap,” he said. “The opposition landscape remains heavily fragmented.”
An average of four opinion polls showed the BJP alliance on course to win 273 of the 545 seats in the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of Parliament, a much-reduced majority from the more than 330 seats it won in 2014.
The BJP alone won a landslide 282 seats five years ago, securing a clear single-party majority for the first time in decades and raising hopes of economic reform after a period of sluggish growth.
A Reuters analysis of 50 pledges from the BJP’s 2014 manifesto showed Modi did not fulfil or only partly fulfilled most promises on the economy and business.
Congress is trying to rebuild its appeal after winning only 44 seats in 2014 and has promised monthly handouts of 6,000 rupees (S$117) for the poorest families. It hopes to win enough seats to lure regional parties opposed to Modi after the election and form the government.