Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 November 2019

Strong turnout as India holds first stage of general election

Violence and voting machine malfunctions mar vote in some areas

Indians queue to vote at a polling station in Lowgaon village in Assam state on April 11, 2019. AFP
Indians queue to vote at a polling station in Lowgaon village in Assam state on April 11, 2019. AFP

Indians voted on Thursday in the first stage of the world's largest election, with a strong turnout reported from most regions. At least four people died in election-related violence, while malfunctioning voting machines delayed polling in some areas.

Two workers of the ruling Telugu Desam party in Andhra Pradesh state were killed in clashes with supporters of a regional opposition party, YSR Congress, police said. An polling official was killed in a suspected attack by insurgents in India's remote northeast, the election commission said.

About 30 per cent of the voting machines in Andhra Pradesh were still not working by 10am, three hours after polls opened, according to a complaint to election officials by the state's chief minister. Voters in the state were electing all 25 of their MPs and the state legislative assembly.

At least 15 electronic voting machines were damaged by some angry voters during the voting in several states, Chandra Bhushan, an election commission official, said. Overall turnout was estimated at more than 60 per cent.

About 142 million of India's estimated 900 million electorate were eligible to vote in the first of seven phases for the parliamentary election, with polling held for 91 of the lower house's 543 elected seats. The voting was spread across 18 states and two union territories.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on voters to turn out in large numbers, particularly the young. Overall, about 84 million Indians – almost one tenth of the electorate – will be voting for the first time in this election after turning 18.

Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party that is seen as the the main challenger to Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, exhorted Indians to "vote wisely", saying: " You vote today for the soul of India. For her future."

Besides, Andhra Pradesh, the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Uttarakhand, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Telangana, and the union territories of Lakshadweep and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands also elected all their MPs on Thursday. Voting was also held in parts of Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Manipur, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

Mr Modi said the number of people who came out to vote suggested a "massive Modi government wave".

"Which way the winds are blowing, can be seen from your enthusiasm," he told an election rally in an area of Assam that was not voting on Thursday.

Opinion polls favour Mr Modi, although he is accused of failing to deliver on his promises to create enough jobs for India's growing youth population and to support farmers, who are suffering from low produce. Thousands of indebted farmers have committed suicide in recent years. High prices and corruption are also among the concerns most regularly cited by voters

"I want a government that thinks about women and brings down the high prices of rice and lentils," said Suman Sharma, 50, a housewife in Ghaziabad near Delhi.

Mr Modi received a popularity boost from his tough response to an attack on Indian troops in the disputed region of Kashmir in February, but his Hindu nationalist stance has also been criticised for encouraging violence against India's minorities.

In Kashmir's northern Baramulla area, one of three constituencies in the Muslim-majority state that voted on Thursday, turnout was estimated at about 35 per cent, compared to 38 per cent in 2014. Many people said they came out to vote only to express their disapproval of the BJP, calling it an "anti-Muslim" and "anti-Kashmiri" organisation.

Police said a 13-year-old boy was killed and six people wounded in protests after polling ended, with demonstrators throwing stones and government forces firing live ammunition.

Mr Modi led the BJP to a sweeping win in the 2014 election, securing an outright majority, and the party has put him at the heart of its campaign to secure a second five-year term.

"Each [BJP] candidate contesting across India represents a miniature version of Modi. We are fighting not with our name. We are fighting with the name of our Supreme Leader, Narendra Modi," national party spokesman Sambit Patra said ahead of voting.

The first round of voting could prove important for the BJP, which won only 32 of 91 seats in the first phase of the 2014 elections.

Updated: April 12, 2019 12:46 AM