Indians election: World’s biggest polls kick off with 900 million eligible voters

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 held the advantage going into the election, opinion polls showed Reuters said.

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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, 38, the owner of a mobile telephone shop, 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.

While tension with Pakistan has whipped up nationalist sentiment, political analysts say the BJP has soft-pedalled 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.”

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.

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