Polling officials work to set up a polling station at a school, a day ahead of the first phase of the election, at Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, India, 18 April 2024; Credit: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar

KAIRANA/CHENNAI, India (Reuters) - Indians began voting on Friday 19 April 2024, in the world's largest election as Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks a historic third term on the back of issues such as growth, welfare, Hindu nationalism and personal popularity.

The vote pits Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against an alliance of two dozen opposition parties that promise greater affirmative action and more handouts while stressing what they call the need to save democratic institutions.

"Modi will come back to power, because apart from the religious push, his other work, in areas such as safety and security, is good," said Abdul Sattar, 32, a Muslim voter in the city of Kairana in the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh.

He was among those queuing outside polling stations, some well before the opening time of 07:00 a.m. (01:30 GMT), amid tight security.

Friday's phase is the first and largest of seven, covering 166 million voters in 102 constituencies across 21 states and territories, from Tamil Nadu in the south to Arunachal Pradesh on the Himalayan frontier with China.

Almost a billion people in the world's most populous nation are eligible to vote in the entire exercise running through the peak of summer until 1 June 2024, with results set for 4 June.

Surveys suggest the BJP will easily win a majority even though voters worry about unemployment, inflation and rural distress in the world's fastest-growing major economy.

Unemployment was the main concern for Mohammed Shabbir, another Muslim voter in Kairana, about 100 km from Delhi, the capital.

The 60-year-old driver and father of eight said none of his children had regular jobs. "Even the Hindus are affected by a lack of jobs," he said, explaining that he saw it outweighing Hindu nationalism as an election issue in the Hindu-majority nation.

Hindu nationalism is a key election theme, especially after Modi's January consecration of a grand temple to the God-king Lord Ram on a site in the northern city of Ayodhya believed to be his birthplace.

Critics accuse Modi's government and party of targeting India's 200 million minority Muslims to please their hardline Hindu base - charges both deny.

Modi aims to win 370 of parliament's 543 seats, up from 303 in 2019, hoping for a two-thirds majority that some fear could let his party make far-reaching constitutional changes.

Strong southern push

Voters in Tamil Nadu, one of India's most developed states where the BJP is weak, seemed divided on whether Modi's strong push this time would benefit his party.

"Modi has made India a peaceful country, particularly for Hindus," said S Rajagopal, a three-wheel taxi driver in the state capital of Chennai. "The BJP may not boost its vote share in Tamil Nadu but nationwide, Modi will win hands down again."

V Parasuraman, 55, who works in the construction business, said the BJP had done little for Tamil Nadu, however.

"Their leaders didn't even come here when Chennai was flooding. People here are educated and [...] won't fall for Modi's sugar-coated words."

The BJP campaign takes as its theme Modi’s guarantee to fulfill promises to voters.

"I particularly call upon the young and first-time voters to vote in large numbers," Modi posted on X minutes before polls opened. "After all, every vote counts and every voice matters."

A Modi victory would make him only the second Indian prime minister to be elected three times in a row, after post-independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.

Prospect of heat, violence

With India forecast to experience more heat-wave days than normal this year, a more immediate concern is how the weather could affect voter turnout.

The threat of violence looms in some pockets, such as the central state of Chhattisgarh, after security forces killed 29 Maoist rebels. On Friday, the forces used drones to track rebel movements while patrolling polling areas.

Parts of the eastern state of West Bengal saw sporadic violence before the vote, as workers of the BJP and regional rival Trinamool Congress accused each other of attacks.

Some BJP insiders and analysts say the party is worried about fatigue, complacency or overconfidence among voters and party members, however, and needs to draw people to vote.

Yet the opposition's INDIA alliance has struggled to forge unity. It has accused the government of hobbling its efforts by arresting its leaders in graft cases and making huge tax demands ahead of the vote - charges the government denies.

The election will decide the future of Indian democracy, Rahul Gandhi, leader of the main opposition Congress party, said in a post on X.

"Strengthen democracy by applying the balm of your vote to the wounds inflicted on the soul of the nation in the last ten years [...] defeat hatred," he said on Friday.