An Indian woman casts her vote at a polling station during India's general election in Samuguri, Assam, on Thursday. Biju Boro/AFP
Indians voted enthusiastically on Thursday at the start of a mammoth general election, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking a second term after campaigning fervently on a plank of national security, following tension with neighbouring Pakistan.
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.
People trekked, rode bicycles and drove tractors to polling stations in the world's biggest democratic exercise, with nearly 900 million eligible to vote during seven phases of balloting spread over 39 days, and vote-counting set for May 23.
"I've never missed my vote in my life," said Anima Saikia, a 61-year-old woman in the northeastern state of Assam, who was among early voters in the first phase.
"This is the only time we can do something. The game is in our hands right now."
Boosted by a surge in nationalist fervour after hostilities with Pakistan in February, Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) held the advantage going into the election, opinion polls showed.
But distress over growing unemployment and weak farm incomes in rural areas, home to two-thirds of Indians, is expected to shrink the tally of Modi's BJP alliance to a far smaller majority than in the 2014 election.
By 3pm, with three hours to the close of polling, more than half of voters had turned out in most states, the Election Commission said. Voter participation was the highest, at 70 per cent, in the eastern state of West Bengal, where the BJP is on a collision course with a firebrand regional politician.
One of the Uttar Pradesh constituencies voting was Muzaffarnagar, where Hindu-Muslim riots killed 65 people months before the last election.
"Modi has worked, but not done enough for us," Shadab Ali, a Muslim first-time voter in a polling queue, told Reuters. "We want development. I've voted for development."
As voting began, Modi said the mood was firmly in favour of his National Democratic Alliance (NDA), whose senior party is the BJP. "NDA's aim is — development, more development and all-round development," he said on Twitter.
Congress, which promised more jobs and "Love over hate" in its own rallying cry on Twitter, had wrested three key states from the BJP in state polls in December by promising to waive the outstanding loans of distressed farmers.
It has sought allies among regional parties to defeat the BJP over its economic record, but pollsters say support for the ruling party grew over Modi's tough stance against Pakistan.
"The gap between Congress and the BJP is still enormous, so no one is seriously thinking that Congress is going to fill that gap. The opposition landscape remains heavily fragmented.
"I support the prime minister's policies, especially his foreign policy," SachinTyagi, 38, a mobile phone shop owner, told Reuters near a polling station in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
"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."
About two dozen voters had lined up at that voting centre and more were streaming in early on Thursday. Young men in jeans and shorts, older men in white kurtas and women in colourfulsarees stood in the lines.
Spread over 39 days, the final phase of the election will be held on May 19, and the result will be announced on May 23.
Gilles Verniers, a political science professor at Ashoka University near New Delhi, predicted Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi, would 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 added. "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 LokSabha, the lower house of parliament, a much reduced majority from the more than 330-seat majority it scored at the last election.
In the 2014 general election, the BJP alone won a landslide 282 seats, securing a clear single-party majority for the first time in decades and raising hopes of economic reform after a period of sluggish growth.
In Uttar Pradesh, which sends more lawmakers to parliament than any other, Ajesh Kumar, who runs a roadside restaurant, said he voted for the BJP in 2014, when Hindu-Muslims riots in the area killed at least 65 people, and would do so again.
"But jobs are a problem here," he said, echoing government and private statistics https://in.reuters.com/article/India-economy-jobs/Indias-february-jobless-rate-climbed-to-72-per cent-cmie-idINKCN1QM1NT that show Modi's government has failed to create enough work for the millions of young Indians entering the labour force each year.
"I support the prime minister's policies, especially his foreign policy.
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.
From sugar farmers in northern India going unpaid for produce, to small businesses in the south shut because they are unable to meet the requirements of a new, unifying national tax, discontent over the economy has brewed for months.
A Reuters analysis https://graphics.reuters.com/India-ELECTION-PROMISES/010091DR1ZR of 50 pledges from the BJP’s 2014 manifesto showed Modi only partly fulfilled, or did not fulfil, most promises on the economy and business.
Having won only 44 seats last time, Congress is trying to rebuild its appeal, and has promised monthly handouts of 6,000 rupees ($86.59) for the poorest families.
It hopes to win enough seats to lure regional parties opposed to Modi to back it after the election and form the government. ($1=69.2900 Indian rupees)
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