Tens of millions of Indians joined nationwide queues Thursday to give their verdict on nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi as the world’s biggest election started amid deadly clashes.
Election officials reported a heavy turnout across the 20 states taking part in the first day of the massive exercise which involves 900 million eligible voters and will take nearly six weeks to complete.
While the 68-year-old Modi remains popular because of his tough stance on national security, he is under pressure over unemployment and controversial economic reforms.
Insults and fake news have surged on social media in the run-up to the poll as Modi’s right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress party stake rival claims.
On the ground, security forces were on high alert and three members of rival regional parties were killed in clashes outside polling stations in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.
After five people including a local lawmaker were killed by a roadside bomb planted by suspected Maoist rebels on Tuesday, insurgents were blamed for two voting day blasts in Maharashtra state, where two police were injured, and one in Chhattisgarh state.
In Kashmir, which is in the grip of an insurrection that took India to the verge of war with neighbouring Pakistan less than two months ago, one teenager was killed in clashes with security forces.
Police said the 13-year-old boy was killed and six people wounded in protests after polling ended, with demonstrators throwing stones and government forces firing live ammunition.
Tens of thousands of police, paramilitaries and troops were on voting duty in the volatile state.
Thousands of candidates from more than 2,000 parties are running for office in the seven separate days of voting in 543 constituencies up to May 19. Final results will be released on May 23.
Some 1.1 million electronic voting machines are being taken around the country, with some transported through jungles and carried up mountains, including to a hamlet near the Chinese border with just one voter.
About 142 million people were eligible for the first day of voting.
In the northeastern state of Assam, queues started forming well before voting opened, including many of the 84 million first-time voters who could play a decisive role in the outcome.
“It’s a great feeling to cast the vote, which makes me a part of the democratic system and makes me responsible for electing a good leader,” Anurag Baruah, 23, told AFP.
Modi swept to power in 2014 with the biggest landslide in 30 years.
The BJP has put Modi left, right and centre of its campaign to secure a second five year term.
“Each (BJP) candidate contesting across India represents a miniature version of Modi. We are fighting not with our name. We are fighting with the name of our Supreme Leader, Narendra Modi,” national party spokesman Sambit Patra said ahead of voting.
Critics, however, accuse Modi of imposing a Hindu agenda through re-writing school textbooks and re-naming cities and emboldening attacks on Muslims and low-caste Dalits.
Modi has simplified the tax code and made doing business easier, but some promises have fallen short. Thousands of indebted farmers have committed suicide in recent years.
Growth in Asia’s third-biggest economy has been too slow to provide jobs for the roughly one million Indians entering the labour market each month.
“I want a government that thinks about women and brings down the high prices of rice and lentils,” said Suman Sharma, 50, a housewife in Ghaziabad near Delhi.
Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party and latest member of his family dynasty hoping to become prime minister, accused Modi of causing a “national disaster”.
“No JOBS. DEMONETISATION. Farmers in Pain… Lies. Lies. Lies. Distrust. Violence. HATE. Fear,” Gandhi tweeted on Thursday.
“You vote today for the soul of India. For her future. Vote wisely.”
His party won three key state elections in December but India’s showdown with Pakistan in February gave Modi’s standing a new boost.
Gandhi, great-grandson, grandson and son of three past premiers, has grown in stature since being derided in leaked US diplomatic cables in 2007 as an “empty suit”.
But Modi and the BJP’s campaign juggernaut — he has been addressing three rallies a day in the run-up to voting — will be no pushover, promising a $1.4-trillion infrastructure blitz if he wins.
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.
India’s latest military altercation with arch-rival Pakistan in February has allowed Modi to portray himself as the nation’s “chowkidar” (“watchman”).
The few opinion polls have given him the advantage but they are notoriously unreliable in India and much will depend on the BJP’s performance in key states such as Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state, where it won most of the 80 seats in 2014. – AFP