A woman shows her inked finger after casting her vote during the first phase of Gujarat state legislature elections in Limbadi, India, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. Image Credit: AP

NEW DELHI: Voters in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat cast ballots on Thursday in crucial Assembly elections, a vote that is seen as a barometer of his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s popularity ahead of a 2024 general election in India.

The polls are the first of two phases of voting in the western state that Modi ruled as chief minister for over a decade before he led his ruling Hindu nationalist party to victories in national elections in 2014 and 2019.

A second round of voting will take place on Monday before votes are counted December 8.

Modi’s party remains popular despite criticism of inflation and unemployment and is expected to emerge victorious. Most pre-election surveys and several political analysts have predicted that it will win a majority of the 182 seats in the state for a record seventh time in a row, defeating the main opposition Congress party and new entrant Aam Aadmi Party.

The BJP has been in power in Gujarat, a state of more than 60 million, since 1995.

Modi and dozens of top leaders of his party have been campaigning in Gujarat and voters will go to the polls a month after the collapse of a suspension bridge in the town of Morbi killed 135 people. The disaster angered people across the state but analysts say it won’t dent BJP’s popularity in the polls.

India’s main opposition Congress party is hoping to revive its fortunes and regain some popularity in the state. In October, the party elected a new president, a move that was seen to shed its image as a family dynasty. In September, Rahul Gandhi, its most prominent leader, launched a cross-country unity march across Indian cities, towns and villages to rejuvenate the party and win the people’s support. But analysts say neither event will help the party electorally during the Gujarat polls.

Meanwhile, the BJP is facing a tough challenge from the Aam Aadmi Party, which has ruled the capital, Delhi, since 2015. Earlier this year, it swept polls in the northern Punjab state by overthrowing the Congress party.

Aam Aadmi Party, which grew out of a nationwide anti-corruption movement in 2012, has been a force to reckon with in Delhi. Since its surprise win in the Punjab state, the party has been trying to strengthen its presence across the country. A strong showing in Gujarat could indicate whether the party could appeal voters during the 2024 general election, mainly at the expense of the Indian National Congress party that has struggled since 2014.

788 candidates

Meanwhile, Gujarat Home Minster Harsh Sanghavi cast his vote at a polling station in Surat Thursday. Notably, in these elections, Sanghavi is contesting for the Majura constituency seat in Gujarat.

The polling is taking place in 89 constituencies spread across 19 districts of Kutch, Saurashtra and South Gujarat.

A total of 2,39,76,670 voters who will cast their votes by 5pm will decide the fate of 788 candidates who are in the fray for the first phase.

Out of the total number of electorates, 1,24,33,362 are males, 1,1,5,42,811 females and 497 are from the third gender. Over 400,000 PWD voters are eligible to cast their votes.

Earlier in the day, Gujarat BJP chief CR Paatil also cast his vote in Surat and said that Modi’s magic works every time and everywhere as people trust him and he is capable of meeting their expectations.

“Modi’s magic works every time, everywhere. He’s in people’s hearts. They trust him and he is capable of meeting their expectations,” Paatil said before casting the vote.

Meanwhile, state Finance Minister Kanubhai Desai also cast his vote and termed the elections “semi-finals of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections” in the country.

“After the country accepted Gujarat’s model of development in the year 2014, these 2022 assembly elections are the semi-finals for 2024 elections,” Kanubhai Desai said.