Indians are voting on Tuesday in the third phase of the general elections with campaigning by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party and the opposition marred by bitter accusations and acrimony.
People lined up outside voting station at several places even before the polling started at 7am.
In all, 188 million voters are eligible to cast ballots for 117 parliamentary seats in 13 states and two Union Territories today.
Polls are half done for 543 seats in the lower house of Parliament. The voting over seven phases ends May 19, with counting scheduled for May 23. The voting is staggered to facilitate movement of security forces to oversee an orderly election and avoid vote fraud.
Modi is scheduled to vote today in his home state Gujrat, though he is contesting for a parliamentary seat from Varanasi, a city in northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
The voting also is taking place in Wayanad constituency in southern Kerala state, one of the two seats from where opposition Congress party president, Rahul Gandhi, is contesting. His home bastion, Amethi, in Uttar Pradesh state will have polling on May 6. He will give up one seat if he wins from both places.
“This is, sort of, an inflection point,” said Rahul Verma, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank.
Modi had addressed an election rally in western Maharashtra state on Monday and mentioned the attacks on Sri Lankan hotels and churches on Easter Sunday that killed 290 people. He said India's security had been enhanced after his government came to power in 2014.
“Friends, remember what India's situation was before 2014.” Modi said. “Weren't there bombs going off in different corners of the country every other day?”
Verma said Modi's repeated references to the Sri Lankan attacks were a sign that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would double down on the security issue for the remainder of the election campaign, which the prime minister began as a front-runner amid escalated tensions with neighbouring Pakistan.
“I feel BJP is hell-bent on running this campaign on national security,” Verma said.
“Basically if they bring up any other thing, they would be on a difficult terrain, like on economic issues or on their performance.”
In Gujarat, Modi first met his mother early in the morning and then rode in an open jeep, surrounded by hundreds of onlookers, to cast his vote shortly after 8 a.m. (0230 GMT) He again raised security as a campaign issue.
“IED is a weapon of terrorism, and voter ID is a weapon of democracy,” he told reporters after voting, referring to improvised explosive devices and India's voter identification cards.
“I believe the voter ID is much more powerful than an IED.” Jayendra Singh, 44, a businessman in the state's capital, Gandhinagar, also voted early on Tuesday and said the economy, women's safety and unemployment were major issues for him.
However, he disapproved of Modi talking up the air strike in Pakistan, which led to aerial clashes between the nuclear-armed rivals. “There shouldn't be any marketing of this. That's what I personally feel,” Singh said.
The election is seen as a referendum on Modi's five-year rule. He has adopted a nationalist pitch trying to win the majority Hindu votes by projecting a tough stance against Pakistan.
So far, the BJP has aggressively pushed Modi's national security record as it seeks to offset the opposition's charges of economic mishandling, inadequate jobs creation and widespread farm distress.
“I think job creation, sustainable development, and communal harmony should be the top priorities for the upcoming government,” said Ubaidullah Mohyideen, 26, who voted in Kerala's Wayanad, one of the two seats that Gandhi is contesting.
The opposition is challenging Modi for a high unemployment rate of 6.1 per cent and farmers' distress aggravated by low crop prices.
Modi has used Kashmir to pivot away from his economic record, playing up the threat of rival Pakistan, especially after the Pulwama attack, in a bid to appear a strong, uncompromising leader on national security.
Opposition parties have consistently said that Modi and his party leaders are digressing from the main issues such as youth employment and farmers' suicides.
ECI cracks down on hate speech
India's autonomous Election Commission intervened last week to block hate speeches by imposing a temporary ban on campaigning by some top politicians across political parties.
Hindus comprise 80pc and Muslims 16pc of India's 1.3 billion people. The opposition accuses the BJP of trying to polarise the Hindu votes in its favour.
Uttar Pradesh state chief minister Yogi Adityanath of Modi's BJP was barred from campaigning, in the form of public meetings, road shows or media interviews, for three days for making anti-Muslim speeches. He said a Hindu god will ensure the BJP victory in elections, while the opposition was betting on Muslim votes.
Mayawati, a leader of Bahujan Samaj Party, was punished for 48 hours for appealing to Muslims to vote only for her party. India's top court ordered strict action against politicians for religion and caste-based remarks.
Meenakshi Lekhi, a BJP leader, filed a contempt of court petition against Rahul Gandhi in the Supreme Court for misrepresenting a court order while accusing Modi of corruption in a deal to buy 36 French Rafale fighter aircraft. Modi denies the charge.