Indians begin voting in second phase of mega general election

AFP . New Delhi | Update:

Indian police gestures as they stand guard in front of a polling station in Chennai on 17 April 2019, ahead of the second phase of India`s general election, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Photo: AFPIndian authorities poured security forces into the restive region of Kashmir on Thursday as it took centre stage for the second round of the country's enormous national election.

Tens of thousands of troops, paramilitaries and police have been sent to the region's main city, Srinagar, which will be one of 97 constituencies across India to take part in the latest vote.

Kashmir has surged into prime minister Narendra Modi's campaign since a February bomb attack that killed 40 paramilitaries and brought India and Pakistan -- which both control part of divided Kashmir -- to the brink of war.

Authorities have shut many roads in Srinagar and urged residents to avoid some parts of the city. Extra armed troops were deployed along streets and the banks of the river Jhelum.

More than 157 million of the 900 million electorate are eligible to cast ballots on the second of seven days of voting in the world's biggest election.

Modi has put national security at the centre of his campaign to secure a second five-year term. While seen as the favourite, he faces an increasingly tough challenge from opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi.

Gandhi has gone on a relentless attack against the economic record of Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Attacks and insults

Indian polling officials prepare a polling station in Chennai on 17 April 2019, ahead of the second phase of India`s general election, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Photo: AFPThousands of candidates from more than 2,000 parties are competing for 543 seats in parliament. The last vote is on 19 May and final results will be released on 23 May.

The first day of voting a week ago saw heavy turnout and security forces on high alert after a roadside bomb in Chhattisgarh, a central state where Maoist rebels operate, killed five people days before polls opened.

Insults and fake news have proliferated on social media during the campaign, and police squads have been on the hunt for money and gifts intended to sway voters to back certain parties.

Voting in a constituency in the southern state of Tamil Nadu was cancelled altogether after $1.5 million in cash was seized by authorities.

It is the first time a ballot has been cancelled during an election over suspected vote-buying, officials said.

'Good days'

Modi and the right-wing BJP swept to power in a 2014 landslide with their promise of "achhe din" ("good days").

He has simplified the tax code and made doing business easier.

But despite growth of about seven percent a year, Asia's third-biggest economy has not provided enough jobs for the roughly one million Indians entering the labour market each month.

A graphic showing voting areas during Phase 2 of India`s general election, on 18 April. Photo: AFPAnd in rural areas, thousands of indebted farmers have killed themselves in recent years.

Modi sought to counter critics of his campaign in a television interview this week when he said: "If farmers die, then it is an election issue, but when soldiers die then it is not an election issue? How can that be?"

Critics say the BJP has also since sought to impose a Hindu agenda on India, emboldening attacks on Muslims and low-caste Dalits trading in beef -- cows being holy for Hindus -- and re-writing school textbooks.

Gandhi, 48, who wants to become the fourth member of his family to take the prime minister's office, has accused Modi of causing a "national disaster".

His Congress party has already profited from voter dissatisfaction by taking three key state elections in December.

Gandhi has pledged to end abject poverty by 2030 and give cash transfers to 50 million families, while the BJP has promised a $1.4-trillion infrastructure blitz to create jobs.

Modi, who has adopted the moniker "chowkidar" or "watchman" of the nation, has been addressing three rallies a day in a bid to drum up enthusiasm.

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