MUZAFFARNAGAR, India (Reuters) - Indians thronged to vote on Thursday at the start of a mammoth general election, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking a second term after campaigning on a plank of national security following hostilities with neighboring 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. Vote-counting is 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 fervor after February’s antagonism with Pakistan, 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 BJP alliance’s majority from the 2014 election.
“He’s improved India’s global standing, and taken revenge against our enemies,” mobile telephone shop owner Sachin Tyagi, 38, told Reuters near a polling station in northern Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.
“I am happy with Modi-ji but the employment situation could be improved,” he added, using an honorific suffix.
With final turnout figures for Thursday yet to come, the Election Commission told a news conference that by 5 p.m., an hour before polling closed, voter participation was highest in the eastern state of West Bengal at almost 81 percent.
There, the BJP is on a collision course here with a firebrand regional politician.
By 6 p.m., the large southern state of Andhra Pradesh had a turnout of 73 percent, while nearly 64 percent of those eligible had voted in Uttar Pradesh, the state that sends the most lawmakers to Parliament.
While tension with Pakistan has fueled nationalist sentiment, political analysts say the BJP has soft-pedalled its agenda to spread Hindu culture in a country where a fifth of the 1.3 billion population belongs to other religions.
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, told Reuters. “We want development. I’ve voted for development.”
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 president, Rahul Gandhi.
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 his Nehru-Gandhi family’s home district in Uttar Pradesh.
A suicide bomber 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.
In a letter, Congress told the home ministry a green laser had been pointed at Rahul Gandhi’s head seven times during the meeting, and that feedback from former security personnel suggested it could potentially have come from a sniper gun.
The home ministry dismissed the fears, saying the “green light” was from a mobile phone used by a Congress photographer.
After the polls closed, a student was killed in clashes between youths and Indian troops in the Baramulla parliamentary constituency in the frontier district of Kupwara in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, a senior police officer said.
In 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.
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.
GRAPHIC: Modi's report card - tmsnrt.rs/2Iqqsk3
GRAPHIC: Drugs, gold, cash and alcohol - tmsnrt.rs/2UuJ4XB
As voting began, Modi said the mood was firmly in favor of his National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the BJP. “NDA’s aim is — development, more development and all-round development,” he said on Twitter.
Congress, which promised jobs and “Love over Hate” in its own rallying cry on Twitter, 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 Modi’s tough stance on Pakistan boosted support for the ruling party.
Aerial clashes between the nuclear-armed neighbors followed a suicide attack in February by a militant group based in Pakistan that killed 40 Indian paramilitary police in Kashmir.
An average of four opinion polls showed the BJP alliance on course to win 273 of the 545 seats in parliament’s lower house, a much-reduced majority from the more than 330 it won in 2014.
Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal and Krishna N. Das; Additional reporting by Jatindra Dash in BHUBANESWAR; Zarir Hussain in GUWAHATI; Danish Siddiqui in ALIPURDUAR; Subrata Nagchoudhury in KOLKATA; Aftab Ahmed and Sunil Kataria in NEW DELHI; Fayaz Bukhari in SRINAGAR and Adnan Abidi in MAJULI; Editing by Paul Tait, Clarence Fernandez and Catherine Evans