Voters in northIndia lined up early on Sunday to cast their ballots in the second-to-lastround of a seven-phase general election, with Prime Minister Narendra Modifacing a diverse group of opposition parties seeking to deny him a second term.
More than 100million people across seven states are eligible to vote in the sixth phase ofthe 39-day-long poll, which Modi began on April 11 as front-runner after anescalation of tension with neighbouring Pakistan.
But oppositionparties have recently taken heart at what they see as signs Modi's Hindunationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may be losing ground and have begunnegotiations 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 Congressparty, Rahul Gandhi, said the main issues in the election were unemployment,distress in the countryside, the demonetisation of bank notes and a new salestax.
"It was a goodfight," Gandhi said after he cast his vote.
"Narendra Modiused 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 farmersstruggling with falling crop prices have been major worries for voters. A newgood and services tax (GST), as well as Modi's shock ban on all high-valuecurrency notes in 2016, hurt small and medium businesses.
Some voters in thecapital, New Delhi, said they were backing Modi because they were won over byhis tough stand on security.
Indian warplanesattacked what the government said was a terrorist training camp in Pakistan inFebruary, soon after a suicide car bomb attack in the disputed Kashmir regionkilled 40 police officers. The aggressive response stirred nationalist passionsthat pollsters said could favour Modi in the election.
"I have votedfor Modi's sound foreign policy and national security," said a 36-year oldfirst-time voter who declined to be identified.
"Thedemonetisation has affected jobs growth but over time, the positive effects ofGST and demonetisation would take care of jobs," he said. But concernabout unemployment and crop prices have put the BJP on the back foot, and theopposition has in recent days felt more upbeat about its chances.
Political analystssay state-based and caste-driven parties could be decisive in determining themake-up of the next government.
"Regionalparties will play a bigger role compared to the previous 5 years or even 15years," said K.C. Suri, a political science professor at the University ofHyderabad. "They will regain their importance in national politics."
Recent weeks havealso been marked by personal attacks between leaders, including comments fromModi about the family of Congress President Rahul Gandhi, the scion of theNehru-Gandhi political dynasty.
At a recent rallyModi called Gandhi's late father, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi,"corrupt no. 1". The BJP says Modi was reacting to Rahul Gandhicalling him a thief.
"The politicalvitriolic has become intense, and negatively intense," said Ashok Acharya,a political science professor at the University of Delhi.
"It seems asif this particular election is all about a few political personalities. It isnot about issues, any kind of an agenda."