April 11, 2019 / 1:39 AM / 9 days ago

Big turnout for India's giant election, where Modi has an edge

MUZAFFARNAGAR, India (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, 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.

By 3 p.m., 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 percent, in the eastern state of West Bengal, where the BJP is on a collision course here with a firebrand regional politician.

While tension with Pakistan has fuelled 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 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.”

Voters line up to cast their votes outside a polling station during the first phase of general election in Alipurduar district in the eastern state of West Bengal, India, April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

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, 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.

In a letter, Congress told the home ministry a green laser had been pointed at Rahul Gandhi’s head intermittently during the meeting, making a total of seven instances.

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

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

In the southern 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.

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.

NATIONALIST UPSURGE

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.

Slideshow (27 Images)

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.

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.

($1=69.29 Indian rupees)

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 and Clarence Fernandez

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