India went on high security alert yesterday ahead of the start of its marathon elections after a campaign focused on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership and national security.
A bomb blast on Tuesday blamed on Maoist rebels killed five people, including a lawmaker campaigning for Mr Modi, heightening fears of election bloodshed.
Some 80,000 troops, police and paramilitary personnel will be deployed in troubled Chhattisgarh state – where the attack was carried out – when voting starts today, state police chief D.M. Awasthi said.
Mr Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seeking a second term, defending a landslide win over the opposition Congress party in 2014. The result is predicted to be close, however.
Chhattisgarh is among sensitive states where polling is staggered over several weeks so security and administrative staff can be moved around.
The killing of a local leader of a Hindu nationalist group in Jammu and Kashmir on Tuesday reinforced fears of trouble during voting. Parts of Kashmir will also vote today.
Gunmen burst into a Jammu hospital and shot dead the regional leader of the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is closely linked to Mr Modi’s party.
Tensions also simmered in the eastern state of Odisha, where two landmines were recovered by patrols, and in nearby Bihar, where two roadside bombs were detonated.
Kashmir hit the headlines ahead of the elections after 40 paramilitary personnel were killed in a suicide attack in February.
India blamed the attack on a Pakistan-based group and launched a cross-border air raid, which sparked a retaliatory strike by Pakistan that briefly brought the rivals close to a new war.
Mr Modi has used India’s action against Pakistan to bolster his strongman image and divert attention from criticism over a lack of jobs across the country and a farmers’ debt crisis.
At a rally on Tuesday, he urged first-time voters to dedicate their ballot to the military, which staged the air strike inside Pakistan.
Congress said the speech breached an Election Commission order that political parties should not use the armed forces for propaganda.
A biopic of the Prime Minister has also caused controversy, with Congress waging a legal battle to prevent the showing of what it has called unfair propaganda.
Congress, led by Mr Rahul Gandhi, said the flattering portrayal of Mr Modi would give an unfair advantage to his Hindu nationalist BJP.
The Election Commission yesterday blocked the release of the biopic until the national elections are over, citing possible violations of the election code of conduct.
Separately, the producers of two TV series were given warning notices by the Election Commission for promoting Mr Modi’s pet schemes through their shows, the Press Trust of India reported.
Under Indian election law, during the 48 hours before a state votes, the publication of any content deemed as campaigning – including advertisements, films and even social media content – requires Election Commission approval.
Mr Gandhi, scion of India’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, filed his nomination papers yesterday following a roadshow in his home constituency of Amethi, in Uttar Pradesh. Amethi goes to the polls on May 6.
The last vote is on May 19 and the results will be announced on May 23.
Various opinion polls have indicated an alliance led by Mr Modi’s BJP will win up to 273 of the 543 Parliament seats at stake, just one more than the required majority.