Indians voted enthusiastically yesterday at the start of a mammoth general election, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking a second term after campaigning fervently on a plank of national security, following tension with neighbouring Pakistan.
People trekked, rode bicycles and drove tractors to polling stations in the world's biggest democratic exercise, with nearly 900 million eligible to vote during seven phases of balloting spread over 39 days, and vote-counting set for May 23.
The first phase of India's national elections was held across 18 states and two federally-administered territories, reported Reuters.
"I've never missed my vote in my life," said Anima Saikia, a 61-year-old woman in the northeastern state of Assam, who was among early voters in the first phase.
"This is the only time we can do something. The game is in our hands right now."
Boosted by a surge in nationalist fervour after hostilities with Pakistan in February, Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) held the advantage going into the election, opinion polls showed.
But distress over growing unemployment and weak farm incomes in rural areas, home to two-thirds of Indians, is expected to shrink the tally of Modi's BJP alliance to a far smaller majority than in the 2014 election.
"He's improved India's global standing, and taken revenge against our enemies," Sachin Tyagi, 38, the owner of a mobile telephone shop, told Reuters near a polling station in northern Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state.
"I am happy with Modi-ji but the employment situation could be improved," he added, using an honorific suffix.
With final turnout figures yet to come, the Election Commission told a news conference that by 5:00pm, an hour before polling closed, voter participation was highest in the eastern state of West Bengal at almost 81 percent.
By 6:00pm, the large southern state of Andhra Pradesh had a turnout of 73 percent, while nearly 64 percent of those eligible had voted in Uttar Pradesh, the state that sends the most lawmakers to Parliament.
While tension with Pakistan has fuelled nationalist sentiment, political analysts say the BJP has soft-pedalled its agenda to spread Hindu culture in a country where a fifth of the population of about 1.3 billion belongs to other religions.
The main opposition Congress is leading the fight against the BJP, partnering with smaller parties in some places and elsewhere going it alone, hoping to bank on the charisma of its president, Rahul Gandhi, drawn from the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Voting was mainly peaceful. In Andhra Pradesh, clashes between followers of rival parties left at least two dead and several injured in on the first day polling, media reports said.
Suspected Maoist rebels also triggered blasts in Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra states in a bid to disrupt voting. The rebel attacks briefly held up polling at one location but no injuries were reported.
Besides clashes, the malfunctioning of Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) yesterday came in for sharp criticism, reported our New Delhi correspondent.
The reports of EVM glitches were reported from several parts of Andhra Pradesh, and certain parts of Maharashtra and Jammu and Kashmir.
Andhra Pradesh chief minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu demanded a re-poll in nearly 150 polling stations due to non-functioning of EVMs and an opposition Jana Sena party candidate vented his frustration by smashing an EVM in the state leading to his arrest.
video that emerged later in the day showed several voters complaining that the EVMs they used seemed to choose a certain symbol regardless of which button they pressed.
EVM malfunctioning were also reported at some places in seven Lok Sabha constituencies in Maharashtra.
In Jammu and Kashmir, National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) alleged EVM malfunctioning in several places across the state.
As voting began, Modi said the mood was firmly in favour of his National Democratic Alliance (NDA), whose senior party is the BJP. "NDA's aim is - development, more development and all-round development," he said on Twitter.
Congress, which promised more jobs and "Love over hate" in its own rallying cry on Twitter, had wrested three key states from the BJP in state polls in December by promising to waive the outstanding loans of distressed farmers.
It has sought allies among regional parties to defeat the BJP over its economic record, but pollsters say support for the ruling party grew over Modi's tough stance against Pakistan.
Aerial clashes between the nuclear-armed neighbours followed a suicide attack in February by a militant group based in Pakistan that killed 40 Indian paramilitary police in Kashmir.
An average of four opinion polls showed the BJP alliance on course to win 273 of the 545 seats in parliament's lower house, a much-reduced majority from the more than 330 it won in 2014.