NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Voters in north India lined up early on Sunday to cast their ballots in the second-to-last round of a seven-phase general election, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi facing a diverse group of opposition parties seeking to deny him a second term.
More than 100 million people across seven states were voting on Sunday. Polling kicked off on April 11 with Modi as front-runner after an escalation of tension with neighbouring Pakistan.
But opposition parties have taken heart at what they see as signs Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may be losing ground and have begun negotiations over a post-election alliance even before polling ends on May 19. Votes will be counted on May 23.
The president of the main opposition Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, said the main issues in the election were unemployment, economic hardship in the countryside, the de-monetisation of bank notes and a new sales tax.
“It was a good fight,” Gandhi said after he cast his vote.
“Narendra Modi used hatred, we used love. And I think love is going to win.”
A lack of new jobs - despite annual economic growth of about 7% - and the plight of farmers struggling with falling crop prices have been major worries for voters.
A new goods and services tax (GST), as well as Modi’s shock ban on all high-value currency notes in 2016, hurt small and medium businesses.
Some voters in the capital, New Delhi, said they were backing Modi because they were won over by his tough stance on security.
Indian warplanes attacked what the government said was a terrorist training camp in Pakistan in February, soon after a suicide car bomb attack in the disputed Kashmir region killed 40 police officers.
The aggressive response stirred nationalist passions that pollsters said could favour Modi in the election.
“I have voted for Modi’s sound foreign policy and national security,” said a 36-year old first-time voter who declined to be named.
“The de-monetisation has affected jobs growth, but over time the positive effects of GST and de-monetisation would take care of jobs,” he said.
But concern about unemployment and crop prices have put the BJP on the back foot, and the opposition has in recent days felt more upbeat about its chances.
Political analysts say state-based and caste-driven parties could be decisive in determining the make-up of the next government.
“Regional parties will play a bigger role compared to the previous 5 years or even 15 years,” said K.C. Suri, a political science professor at the University of Hyderabad. “They will regain their importance in national politics.”
Recent weeks have also been marked by personal attacks between leaders, including comments from Modi about the family of Congress President Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty.
At a recent rally Modi called Gandhi’s late father, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, “corrupt no. 1”. The BJP says Modi was reacting to Rahul Gandhi calling him a thief.
“The political vitriolic has become intense, and negatively intense,” said Ashok Acharya, a political science professor at the University of Delhi.
“It seems as if this particular election is all about a few political personalities. It is not about issues, any kind of an agenda.”
By 2100 IST (1530 GMT), the estimated average voter turnout in the six states and New Delhi, where elections were underway, had crossed 63%. Nearly 60% of eligible voters in New Delhi cast a ballot - about 5 percentage points lower than the turnout in 2014.
In West Bengal, where voter turnout was the highest at more than 80%, the electoral process was marred by violence as BJP candidate Bharati Ghosh was allegedly attacked and chased by supporters of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) party, according to witnesses and one police source.
Violence in Bengal started late on Saturday when one BJP worker was killed and two shot at in separate incidents even under heavy presence of para military forces in the state, two other police sources told Reuters.
Since the start of the election period, political tensions have escalated into sporadic violence across India, especially in West Bengal where the BJP and the TMC have accused each other of killings, beatings, vandalism and of making false allegations to the police.
In a letter to the state’s election commission on Sunday, the BJP complained against the attacks and cited “widespread booth capturing and rigging.”
But TMC leader and the state’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, alleged that the BJP was using members of the central forces to influence voters, adding that she suspected the BJP might have disguised some workers from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, its Hindu nationalist parent, in central forces’ uniform and deployed them in Bengal.
“In some places, they are asking people standing in queue at election booths to vote for Modi,” she said at an election rally in southern Bengal on Sunday. “If they try that here, lodge a complaint immediately and we will remove them,” she told the crowd.
Reuters was unable to independently verify Banerjee’s accusations against the BJP. Jayaprakash Majumdar, a vice president of the BJP in the state, said the allegations were “a blatant lie”.
Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal and Abhirup Roy; Additional reporting by Subrata Nag Choudhury in Kolkata and Neha Dasgupta and Nigam Prusty in New Delhi; Editing by Robert Birsel, Elaine Hardcastle and Raissa Kasolowsky