Violence mars first day of world’s biggest election in India

At least one person was killed on the first day of polling in India’s general elections, which are seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Kashmiri Muslim voters stand in a queue an as Indian Border Security (BSF) soldier walks past at a polling station during the first phase of India's general election in Handwara (Photo by Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP)

A local leader of Andhra Pradesh state’s ruling Telugu Desam party who police identified as Sidda Bhaskara Reddy was killed in a confrontation with supporters of a regional opposition party, YSR Congress. Violent clashes were also reported elsewhere in the state, where voters are casting ballots for 25 members of India’s lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha, and 175 state assembly seats.

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Outside of Andhra Pradesh, voting was taking place in 17 other Indian states and two Union Territories yesterday in the first of a seven-phase election staged over six weeks.

With 900 million of India’s 1.3 people registered to vote, it is the world’s largest democratic exercise. Over the course of the election, 543 Lok Sahba seats will be decided from about a million polling stations across India.

With Modi as their frontman, the BJP won a clear majority in 2014 elections. Under the leadership of political dynasty scion Rahul Gandhi, India’s National Congress party, which ruled the country for about half a century since the 1947 independence, has struggled to coalesce India’s many opposition parties into a coherent effort that could go head-to-head with the BJP. Surveys show the ruling party projected to come out first again in this year’s polls, though with a smaller mandate.

Supporters of Modi say the tea seller’s son from Gujarat state has improved the nation’s standing in the world. India’s economy has continued to grow under Modi, jostling with the United Kingdom for the fifth-largest in the world.

“I vote for the progress of my country,” said businessman Manish Kumar after casting his ballot for the BJP in the Ghaziabad district of Uttar Pradesh state.

Tapan Shome, an accountant, said he and his wife voted “to make India a good, prosperous country”.

But India’s growth hasn’t meant a better employment outlook in the country, where an estimated one million people join the labour pool each month. According to the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy, employment contracted in the year following a 2016 demonetisation programme to remove most of India’s banknotes from circulation by 3.5 million jobs.

Modi’s critics say his party’s Hindu nationalism has aggravated religious tensions.

Since a suicide bombing in disputed Kashmir killed 40 Indian paramilitary forces in February, the BJP campaign has played up the threat of Muslim-majority Pakistan.