New Delhi: The worlds largest-ever election has started in India, with voters in 20 states casting their ballots in the first phase of the country’s marathon six-week polls. The contest in the vast country of 1.3 billion people is dominated by local issues but also viewed as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as a staunch Hindu nationalist.
Polls are now open in 91 seats, about a sixth of the total in the Indian parliament’s lower house, with six more voting days to be held before the results are announced on 23 May. Modi encouraged Indians in a tweet on Thursday morning to “turn out in record numbers and exercise their franchise”, singling out the 45m young people who have been added to the voter rolls since 2014.
The districts voting on Thursday include parts of north India’s “cow belt”, the agrarian states that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) swept in 2014 but where it is expected to shed seats this time around.
It will seek to make up those numbers in states such as West Bengal, parts of which are also voting today, and where the BJP’s message of Hindu unity, muscular foreign policy and pro-business reform has met with greater resistance from powerful regional parties.
Rahul Gandhi, the president of India’s main opposition Congress party, and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra wave to supporters before he files his nomination papers. Photograph: Jitendra Prakash/Reuters
India’s phased election process allows federal security personnel to be shuttled around the country to secure the integrity of a contest involving up to 900 million eligible voters, more than the next five largest democracies combined.