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Nearly a billion people expected to vote as Indian election gets underway

Opinion polls put 68-year-old incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi as favourite.

India Elections Manish Swarup Manish Swarup

NEARLY A BILLION people are expected to vote in India’s marathon general election over the next six weeks as voting gets underway today. 

Opinion polls put 68-year-old incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi as favourite, but he faces a tough challenge from India’s storied Nehru-Gandhi dynasty attempting to capitalise on his poor record on jobs and rural poverty.

The election will be held in seven phases due to the size of the country - from the tea plantations of Darjeeling to the slums of Mumbai to the tropical Andaman Islands.

Thousands of parties and candidates will run for office between now and 19 May in 543 constituencies across the nation of 1.3 billion people. Results are not due until 23 May. 

Several of the 1.1 million electronic voting machines will be transported through jungles and carried up mountains – including to a hamlet near the Chinese border with just one voter.

“It’s a great feeling to cast the vote, which makes me a part of the democratic system and makes me responsible for electing a good leader who can run the country,” Anurag Baruah (23) said. 

In an early-morning tweet to his almost 47 million followers, incumbent Modi called on on voters to “turn out in record numbers and exercise their franchise.”

Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in 2014 with their famous promise of “achhe din” (“good days”), becoming the first party to win an absolute majority in 30 years.

‘National disaster’

Critics say the BJP has since sought to impose a Hindu agenda on India, emboldening attacks on Muslims and low-caste Dalits trading in beef – cows being holy for Hindus – and re-writing school textbooks.

Modi has simplified the tax code and made doing business easier but some of his promises have fallen short, particularly in rural areas where thousands of indebted farmers have killed themselves in recent years.

Growth in Asia’s third-biggest economy has been too slow to provide jobs for the roughly one million Indians entering the labour market each month, and unemployment is reportedly at its highest since the 1970s.

Rahul Gandhi (48) is hoping to become the latest prime minister from his dynasty – and aided by sister Priyanka – has accused Modi of causing a “national disaster”. 

Gandhi’s Congress party appeared last year to profit from voter dissatisfaction, winning in December three key state elections, chipping into Modi’s core support base in the Hindi-speaking heartland of northern India.

142 million people are on the ballot paper for Phase One of voting today. 

Polling stations in northeastern states like Arunachal Pradesh bordering China were the first to open followed by parts of Uttar Pradesh in the north, Jammu and Kashmir in the Himalayas and Telangana in the south.

In Assam in the northeast, queues began forming 45 minutes before voting began, including many young people – there are 84 million first-time voters in this election.

© – AFP 2019

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