india votes
Voters line up outside a polling station to vote during the first phase of the general election in Kairana, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, India, April 19, 2024. Image Credit: Reuters

Kairana/Chennai: Indians began voting on Friday in the world’s largest election as Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks a historic third term on the back of issues such as growth, welfare and personal popularity.

The vote pits Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against an alliance of two dozen opposition parties that promise greater affirmative action and more handouts while stressing what they call the need to save democratic institutions.

“Modi will come back to power, because apart from the religious push, his other work, in areas such as safety and security, is good,” said Abdul Sattar, 32, a voter in the city of Kairana in the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh.

He was among those queuing outside polling stations, some well before the opening time of 7:00am, amid tight security.

india votes
Voters queue at a polling station during the first phase of voting for national elections in Muzaffarnagar district, Uttar Pradesh, India, on Friday, April 19, 2024. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Friday’s phase is the first and largest of seven, covering 166 million voters in 102 constituencies across 21 states and territories, from Tamil Nadu in the south to Arunachal Pradesh on the Himalayan frontier with China.

Almost a billion people in the world’s most populous nation are eligible to vote in the entire exercise running through the peak of summer until June 1, with results set for June 4.

Surveys suggest the BJP will easily win a majority even though voters worry about unemployment, inflation and rural distress in the world’s fastest growing major economy.

The BJP aims to win 370 of parliament’s 543 seats, up from 303 in 2019, hoping for a two-thirds majority that some fear could let the party make far-reaching constitutional changes.

india votes
Women show their inked fingers after casting their ballots to vote in the first phase of India's general election outside a polling station near the India-Bangladesh border in Seoraguri village, Dinhata distict of Cooch Behar in the country's West Bengal state on April 19, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

Voters in Tamil Nadu, one of India’s most developed states where the BJP is weak, seemed divided on whether Modi’s strong push this time would benefit his party.

“Modi has made India a peaceful country, particularly for Hindus,” said S. Rajagopal, a three-wheel taxi driver in the state capital of Chennai.

“The BJP may not boost its vote share in Tamil Nadu but nationwide, Modi will win hands down again.”

The BJP campaign takes as its theme Modi’s guarantee to fulfil promises to voters.

“I particularly call upon the young and first time voters to vote in large numbers,” Modi posted on X minutes before polls opened. “After all, every vote counts and every voice matters.” A Modi victory would make him only the second Indian prime minister to be elected three times in a row, after post-independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.

With India forecast to experience more heat-wave days than normal this year, a more immediate concern is how the weather could affect voter turnout.

The threat of violence looms in some pockets, such as the central state of Chhattisgarh, after security forces killed 29 Maoist rebels. On Friday, the forces used drones to track rebel movement while patrolling polling areas.

Parts of the eastern state of West Bengal saw sporadic violence before the vote, as workers of the BJP and regional rival Trinamool Congress accused each other of attacks.

Some BJP insiders and analysts say the party is worried about fatigue, complacency or overconfidence among voters and party members, however, and needs to draw people to vote.

Yet the opposition’s INDIA alliance has struggled to forge unity. It has accused the government of hobbling its efforts by arresting its leaders in graft cases and making huge tax demands ahead of the vote - charges the government denies.

The election will decide the future of Indian democracy, Rahul Gandhi, leader of the main opposition Congress party, said in a post on X.

“Strengthen democracy by applying the balm of your vote to the wounds inflicted on the soul of the nation in the last 10 years ... defeat hatred,” he said on Friday.