Voting has begun in the second phase of India's general elections amid massive security and a lockdown in parts of the main city in Indian-controlled Kashmir
Srinagar: Voting began in the second phase of India's general elections Thursday amid massive security and a lockdown in parts of the main city in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
Srinagar is one of 95 constituencies across 13 Indian states where voting was taking place.
Kashmiri Muslim separatist leaders who challenge India's sovereignty over the disputed region have called for a boycott of the vote, calling it an illegitimate exercise under military occupation. Most polling stations in the Srinagar and Budgam areas of Kashmir looked deserted, with more armed police, paramilitary soldiers and election staff than voters.
Authorities shut down mobile internet services and closed some roads with steel barricades and razor wire as armed soldiers and police in riot gear patrolled the streets. However, men and women in long queues voted briskly in Kashmir's Hindu-dominated Udhampur constituency.
The Indian election is taking place in seven phases over six weeks in the country of 1.3 billion people. Some 900 million people are registered to vote for candidates to fill 543 seats in India's lower house of Parliament. Voting concludes on May 19 and counting is scheduled for May 23.
Also voting Thursday is Tamil Nadu state in the south, where tens of thousands lined up to cast their ballots for 37 seats. Voting was postponed for the Vellore seat following the seizure of 110 million ($1.57 million) in unaccounted cash allegedly from the home of a local opposition politician, Kathir Anand.
His party accused federal tax authorities of raiding the homes and offices of party leaders running against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party. The governing party in the state, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, is an ally of Modi's party.
The Election Commission said that authorities had recovered 2 billion rupees ($29 million) from leaders, workers and supporters of various political parties in the state in the past month. They suspect the money is for buying votes.
In vote-rich Uttar Pradesh state, election officials directed authorities to provide drinking water and sun shelters at polling stations to cope with the scorching summer heat, said Vekenteshwar Lu, the state's chief electoral officer.
The election, the world's largest democratic exercise, is seen as a referendum on Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. The campaigning has been marred by accusations, insults and unprecedented use of social media for fake news.
Modi promised big-ticket economic reforms, but with unemployment rising and farmers' distress aggravated by low crop prices, his party has adopted a nationalist pitch trying to win the majority Hindu votes.
A report by Azim Premji University in southern state of Karnataka, released on Wednesday, said 5 million men lost their jobs between 2016 and 2018, coinciding with Modi's demonetization program aimed at curbing black market money by taking high currency notes out of circulation. The decision ultimately hurt the poor, while most of the illicit funds reentered the banking system.
The report said that overall unemployment rate in India was around 6% in 2018, double what it was in the decade 2000-11.
Modi has also used Kashmir as one of the top issues of his campaign and played up the threat of rival Pakistan, especially after the suicide bombing of a paramilitary convoy on Feb. 14 that killed 40 soldiers, in a bid to appear strong, uncompromising leader on national security. The bombing brought nuclear rivals India and Pakistan close to the brink of war.
Opposition parties have consistently insisted that Modi and his party leaders are digressing from the main issues like youth employment and farmers' suicides. The main opposition Congress party has dubbed him as a "national disaster."
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and both claim the Himalayan territory in its entirety. Rebels have been fighting Indian control since 1989. Most Kashmiris support the rebels' demand that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control.
Anti-India unrest has risen significantly since Modi came to power in 2014 amid a rise in Hindu nationalism and attacks against Muslims and other minorities.
Modi supporters say the tea seller's son from Gujarat state has improved the nation's standing. But critics say his party's Hindu nationalism has aggravated religious tensions in India.