The world’s largest ever election has started in India, with voters in 20 states casting their ballots in the first phase of a marathon six-week poll.
The contest in the vast country of 1.3 billion people is dominated by local issues but also viewed as a referendum on the prime minister, Narendra Modi, a staunch Hindu nationalist who rode a wave of popularity five years ago to become the first leader of a majority government in decades.
Polls are now open in 91 seats, about a sixth of the total in the Indian parliament’s lower house, with six more voting days to be held before the results are announced on 23 May.
Modi encouraged Indians in a tweet on Thursday to “turn out in record numbers and exercise their franchise”, singling out the 45 million young people who have been added to the voter rolls since 2014.
The districts voting on Thursday include parts of north India’s “cow belt”, the agrarian states that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) swept in 2014 but where it is expected to shed seats this time.
It will seek to make up those numbers in states such as West Bengal, parts of which are also voting today, and where the BJP’s message of Hindu unity, muscular foreign policy and pro-business reform has met with greater resistance from powerful regional parties.
India’s phased election process allows federal security personnel to be shuttled around the country to secure the integrity of a contest involving up to 900 million eligible voters, more than the next five largest democracies combined.
Voters will make their choice using machines that display a paper record of their selection that is then stored in an attached locked box. Their fingers are marked with indelible ink to prevent anyone voting twice. Symbols and pictures are displayed next to candidates’ names to aid the country’s estimated 266 million illiterate citizens.
At a public school-turned-voting station in Noida, a city that borders Delhi, voters arrived throughout the morning by car, motorcycle and rickshaw. Their IDs were checked at a booth decked in an elaborate pink lace curtain, marking the polling station out as one staffed entirely by women.
“This country is better off in all fields [under Modi],” said a surgeon who gave his name as Bhoj. “Earlier we used to live under a scary environment, with politicians in nexus with criminals and terrorists. The feel-good factor is back.”
A “selfie point” had been erected in front of the station, encouraging voters to take pictures showing their ink-marked fingers.
“Basically, I’m seriously concerned about the country descending into fascism,” said another man after emerging from the school. “All the institutions are being centralised under one man’s control.” He declined to give his name.