India's Modi faces test in home state as Gujarat votes

Ahmedabad (India) (AFP) –


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat went to the polls on Saturday, in a key electoral test of his popularity after a series of controversial economic reforms.

Voters, with their election cards in hand, started lining up at polling booths early in the morning in Gujarat where Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has held power for 22 years.

"Urging all those voting today to turnout in record numbers and vote. I particularly call upon youngsters to exercise their franchise," Modi, who forged his political career in Gujarat, tweeted early Saturday.

Modi built his reputation as an economic reformer in Gujarat which boomed under his rule, attracting investments from around the globe.

But his recent reforms -- a new national tax and a shock currency ban to fight graft -- have hit India's growth and hurt the very constituency of traders and small business owners who were his biggest supporters in the western state, polls found.

Experts say this election is a serious challenge to Modi as his rivals ride a wave of discontent over the stuttering economy, adding that voter anger over the reforms and a desire for change could boost the flagging fortunes of the opposition Congress Party.

Voting wrapped up at 5:00 pm local time (1130 GMT) in the first stage of the election on Saturday, with around 50 percent turnout reported as polling booths shut down -- much lower than the 71.3 percent registered at the last state election in 2012.

Political pundits guessed that a relatively lower turnout on Saturday meant voters were probably not as dissatisfied with the BJP as some analysts had predicted.

"High turnout would have been high anti-incumbency. High turnout would have meant high level of anger," political commentator Sagarika Ghose said on NDTV news channel.

The Congress campaign has been spearheaded by Rahul Gandhi -- the man likely to challenge Modi for premiership at the next general election in 2019.

The election is seen as a chance for Gandhi to finally prove his mettle before he is named president of the party his mother Sonia has led for more than two decades.

Another threat to Modi's dominance comes from two prominent groups -- the Patidars, who make up almost 14 percent of Gujarat's 43 million voters, and the low-caste Dalit community.

The Patidars, a relatively well-off caste group comprising farmers and traders who came out in force to support Modi in previous polls, have rocked the state with demands for preferential access to government jobs and education.

A little over 21 million voters were eligible to cast their ballots on Saturday when 89 constituencies were up for grabs across 19 districts of Gujarat, according to the Election Commission of India.

The next stage of voting is on December 14.

- Modi still popular -

Earlier dozens of electronic voting machines malfunctioned briefly, particularly in the districts of Rajkot and Surat, home to textile and diamond trading industries.

"There were initial glitches in more than 30 EVMs due to technical reasons but they have been resolved," said Rajkot district collector and election officer Vikrant Pandey.

Propped up by her relatives, 115-year-old Ajiben Chandravadiya cast her vote at a polling booth in Rajkot to retain her record of having voted in every election in Gujarat since 1960.

Further east in Bharuch district, a young couple, dressed in their wedding attire, made a quick stop at their local polling booth to cast their votes before heading to the marriage ceremony.

"My wife-to-be and I came here to vote... As an Indian citizen it is our duty and responsibility to vote," the decked-up groom told local news channels, without giving his name.

Modi's personal popularity remains high, with three major opinion polls this week showing a win for the BJP -- although by a margin smaller than in 2012.

The combined poll average predicted the BJP grabbing 105-106 seats in the 182-member state house -- well over the 92 required for it to form government for a fifth consecutive time.

It forecast Congress winning 73-74 seats.

India's opinion polls are notoriously unreliable, having been way off mark in previous state and national elections.

Votes from the election will be counted on December 18, with results announced the same day.