India's 814-million-strong electorate began voting Monday in the world's largest election, which is set to sweep the Hindu nationalist opposition to power amid anger over slow growth and corruption following a decade of Congress Party rule.
A victory is predicted for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by conservative hardliner Narendra Modi.
Voting began in six constituencies in India's northeast, the start of a gruelling nine-phase process set to wind up on May 12.
Turnout was near 73 percent in Assam state, where a separatist militancy is rife, and 84 percent in Tripura, official figures showed.
"I want the government to reduce poverty and do something for the future of my children," said tea plantation worker Santoshi Bhumej, 30, at a polling station in Assam's Dibrugarh city.
Dense queues of men and women shuffled slowly into tightly guarded booths to press the button for their candidates on electronic voting machines.
The voting began after a bad-tempered campaign hit new heights of rancour.
Simmering religious tensions in the campaign, which has mostly focused on development, flared into the open late last week, when a top Modi aide was accused of inciting communal violence.
The BJP's Amit Shah faces a judicial probe after reportedly telling voters in a riot-hit north Indian region to see the election as "revenge" against what he called a "government that protects and gives compensation to those who killed Hindus".
Rahul Gandhi, leading the Congress Party into his first national election as scion of the famous dynasty, said Sunday that a BJP victory would threaten India's officially secular fabric.
"Wherever these people (the BJP) go, they create fights. They'll pit Hindus and Muslims against each other," Gandhi warned.
The BJP said talk of "revenge" was normal ahead of an election and insisted the remarks were taken out of context.
Prime ministerial front-runner Modi, son of a tea seller, is a polarising figure whose rule as chief minister of prosperous Gujarat state has been clouded by deadly anti-Muslim riots that erupted in 2002.
Releasing Monday the party's delayed manifesto, which mixed promises of development with the protection of Hindu interests, Modi promised to bring fresh "momentum" to the country.
"The country has become stagnant. It is drowned in pessimism. It needs momentum to move forward," he said.
He urged voters to give him a clear majority in the 543-seat parliament. Surveys have predicted the BJP will need coalition partners when results come in May 16.
In Assam, a Congress Party stronghold, disgruntled voters told AFP they were swayed by Modi's promises of better infrastructure, strong leadership, jobs and a clean administration.
"Modi will give us a corruption-free government," Deepa Borgohain said as she complained bitterly about price rises during Congress's rule.
Over the last decade, annual growth has averaged 7.6 percent, but inflation has also been high and a sharp economic slowdown which struck in 2012 has crippled public finances and investment.
Coupled with the widespread perception that Premier Manmohan Singh's second term was largely lost to indecision and scandal, Modi has tapped into a groundswell of discontent.
The election will be the biggest in history and is a mind-boggling feat of organisation as voters travel to nearly a million polling stations.
Such is India's population growth that 100 million more people have joined electoral rolls since the 2009 vote.
Modi, despite being two decades older than Gandhi at 63 years of age, is seen scoring strongly among young voters, thanks to his development and good governance pledges. Over half of India's population is under age 25.
"He (Rahul Gandhi) was born with a golden spoon, whereas I grew up selling tea on railway platforms. He has a well-known lineage whereas I am honest," Modi told a rally on Monday.
Gandhi's left-leaning Congress Party strongly supports welfare benefits, a policy often at odds with India's growing and increasingly aspirational middle class.
Under Modi, India would likely pursue a more muscular foreign policy at a time when it is leading the developing world on issues from climate change to global trade.
But many observers worry about Modi's impact on religious harmony in a country where 13 percent of the 1.2 billion population is Muslim.
Modi is steeped in a Hindu nationalist ideology that is often antagonistic towards Muslims and he remains tainted by the 2002 Gujarat riots.
At least 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died in a spasm of violence shortly after he became Gujarat's chief minister, prompting US and European governments to boycott him for more than a decade.
Modi has never been found guilty of any wrongdoing, despite many investigations but a woman he appointed as minister was jailed for life in 2012 for orchestrating some of the worst violence.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2014-04-07