GANDERBAL: Voters in India-held Kashmir turned out in large numbers under tight security Tuesday as Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party tried to win power for the first time in the tense Muslim-majority state.
Voters lined up in 15 heavily guarded constituencies in the first stage of staggered elections, ignoring a call by separatist leaders to boycott the poll because of India's rule over the troubled Himalayan region.
Turnout was high in seats across the region, including near the de facto border that divides Indian and Pakistani Kashmir and in remote Ladakh, home to mostly Buddhists, where temperatures have dropped below freezing.
“Vote in large numbers & vote with your hearts,” tweeted the region's chief minister Omar Abdullah, whose National Conference party faces a tough fight to stay in power.
Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is staging a bold attempt to seize control of the Jammu and Kashmir state's 87-member assembly, a move that would have been unthinkable until very recently.
The party has traditionally had no base in the Kashmir Valley, where residents' resentment against Indian rule runs high.
About a dozen rebel groups have been fighting Indian forces since 1989 for Kashmir's independence or for its merger with Pakistan. Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have died.
But Modi's landslide win at national elections in May on a pledge to revive the economy, along with a meltdown in support for incumbent Abdullah after deadly floods in September, have given the BJP hope of a breakthrough.
Outside a polling station in Ganderbal, a seat Abdullah's family has long dominated, some voters at least were ready to give the BJP a chance.
“Whoever is willing to do the work is the best party. There's nothing wrong with the BJP. Whoever works for the poor is the best party,” said taxi driver Aris Ahmed in Ganderbal, 30 kilometres (20 miles) north of the main city of Srinagar.
Election Commission claims turnout high
Separatist hardliners have called for a boycott of the poll, but the Election Commission claimed turnout was 70 per cent across the region and was likely to rise with voters still queueing as stations closed.
“The polls in phase one have gone off absolutely peacefully without any untoward incident,” deputy election commissioner Vinod Zutshi told reporters, adding that a woman said to be 121 was among those casting ballots.
Meanwhile, in Pakistani Kashmir, 1,000 people protested in the region's main town of Muzaffarabad, denouncing the elections in Indian-held Kashmir as “fraudulent”.
Some polls in the past have been marred by low turnout and violent clashes with security forces.
A boycott could play to the BJP's advantage since although Hindus are a minority in Kashmir, their votes take on extra importance if many Muslims stay home.
The BJP has staged a major media campaign, with newspapers in English and Urdu running large advertisements calling on voters to “Come let's go with Modi”.
But analysts said the BJP may have overplayed its hand, predicting ahead of the vote that the blitz would prompt anti-BJP voters to turn out in large numbers, rather than boycott, to cast ballots for regional parties.
“Yes I voted, because votes count and a boycott doesn't,” said government contract worker Bashir Mohammed at a station in Ganderbal.
Thousands of soldiers had been deployed in and around polling stations.
Most separatists have either been arrested or confined to their houses in the lead-up to the election, while police have also detained dozens of youths, authorities have told AFP.
Jammu and Kashmir will vote in five phases, with results due on December 23.
Elections were also being held Tuesday in the insurgency-racked and impoverished central state of Jharkhand, where the BJP is also attempting to seize power.
Army and police have been deployed in force at polling stations for the first phase of the election there amid fears of attacks from Maoists.
The rebels have long been fighting authorities for land, jobs and other rights for poor tribal groups in a conflict that has cost thousands of lives.