World

India's marathon vote begins with enthusiasm, alleged threat

Polls opened Thursday in the first phase of India's general elections, seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party.

7-phase election in country of 1.3 billion will be staggered over nearly 6 weeks

Supporter of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party wearing cut-outs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the party president Amit Shah walk during an election campaign in Ahmedabad, India, on Thursday. (Amit Dave/Reuters)

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.

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.

He's improved India's global standing and taken revenge against our enemies.- Sachin Tyagi, owner of a mobile telephone shop

"He's improved India's global standing and taken revenge against our enemies," Sachin Tyagi, 38, the owner of a mobile telephone shop, told Reuters near a polling station in northern Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state.

A woman holds her daughter as she casts her vote inside a booth at a polling station during the first phase of general election in Majuli, a large river island in the Brahmaputra river, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

"I am happy with Modi-ji but the employment situation could be improved," he added, using an honorific suffix.

While tension with Pakistan has whipped up nationalist sentiment, political analysts say the BJP has soft-pedaled its agenda to spread Hindu culture in a country where a fifth of the population of about 1.3 billion belongs to other religions.

One of the Uttar Pradesh constituencies voting was Muzaffarnagar, where Hindu-Muslim riots killed 65 people during 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."

Dispute over laser pointed at Gandhi

The main opposition Congress is leading the fight against the BJP, partnering with smaller parties in some places and elsewhere going it alone, hoping to bank on the charisma of its leader Rahul Gandhi, drawn from the Nehru-Gandhi family.

On Thursday, it raised concerns over security for Gandhi, saying there could have been an attempt to assassinate him this week when he met reporters in the family borough in Uttar Pradesh, the state that sends the most lawmakers to parliament.

A suicide bomb blast killed Gandhi's father, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, during election campaigning in 1991. His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her bodyguards while prime minister.

The 'green light'

In a letter to India's home ministry, Congress said a green laser had been pointed at Gandhi's head intermittently during the meeting, for a total of seven instances.

Going by feedback from former security personnel, the party added, the laser could have come from a potential weapon, such as a sniper gun.

The home ministry dismissed the fears, saying the "green light" was found to be a mobile phone used by a Congress party photographer.

In the southeastern rice-growing state of Andhra Pradesh, a scuffle between supporters of two regional parties turned violent, killing at least one person and injuring four, Reuters' Indian partner ANI said.

The election panel said voters were turning out in large numbers in the forested eastern state of Chhattisgarh, where Maoist insurgents were blamed for a bomb attack that killed a BJP state legislator and four security officials on Tuesday.

Roads were bare and shops and schools shut in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir after separatists called a strike in protest against the election.

People line up to vote at a polling station during India's general election in Cooch Behar, West Bengal, on Thursday. India's mammoth six-week general election has begun with polling stations in the country's northeast among the first to open. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images)

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 in response to Modi's tough stance against Pakistan.

Aerial clashes between the nuclear-armed neighbours followed a suicide attack in February by a militant group based in Pakistan that killed 40 Indian paramilitary police in Kashmir.

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