India began the mammoth task of choosing its next government as voters lined up at polling booths stretching from the violence-wracked region of Kashmir in the north to eastern and central states.
In an election that has been billed as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is widely expected to emerge as the single largest party, but fall short of the commanding majority it won in 2014.
Modi’s main challenger is Rahul Gandhi, the head of the opposition Congress Party whose hope for a surge in support rests on his promise of tackling poverty.
More than 140 million out of the country’s 900 million voters were eligible to cast ballots in Thursday’s contest for 91 out of 543 parliamentary constituencies.
The world’s largest democratic exercise presents dramatic contrasts: from polling stations guarded by heavily armed security personnel in violence-wracked regions such as Kashmir and Chattisgarh to a festive atmosphere in other places. At one polling station in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, voters were greeted with the beat of drums.
Just before polls opened, Prime Minister Modi, who has made national security his key plank, called on people to vote in “record numbers” and made a special appeal to India’s staggering 85 million voters who joined the electoral rolls this year. “I specially urge young and first-time voters to vote in large numbers,” he tweeted.
If the BJP emerges as a frontrunner, “it will be a mandate drawn by populist nationalism and fusing this with some kind of religious polarization,” says political analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay. “Then it means that this politics is getting endorsed.” (VOA)