Indian Kashmir turns out to vote as Modi eyes power

AFP , Tuesday 25 Nov 2014

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (3rd L) speaks to the media upon his arrival on the opening day of the winter session of the Indian Parliament in New Delhi, November 24, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)

Voters in Indian Kashmir turned out in droves under tight security Tuesday as Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party made a serious bid for power 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 due to India's rule over the troubled Himalayan region.

Turnout was high in seats across the region, including near the de-facto border dividing Indian and Pakistani Kashmir and in remote Ladakh, home to mostly Buddhists, where temperatures were below freezing.

"Vote in large numbers & vote with your hearts," tweeted the region's chief minister Omar Abdullah, whose National Conference party faces an uphill 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 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 neighbouring Pakistan. Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have died.

But Modi's landslide win in national elections in May on a pledge to revive the economy, along with a support meltdown for incumbent Abdullah after deadly September flooding have given the BJP hope of a breakthrough.

Outside a polling station in Ganderbal, a seat Abdullah's family has long dominated, some voters 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.

Separatist hardliners have called for a boycott of the poll, but the Election Commission said turnout was 70 percent 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 a woman said to be 121-years-old was among those casting ballots.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, 1,000 people protested in the region's main town of Muzaffarabad, denouncing the elections in Indian Kashmir as "fraudulent".

"As the Kashmiris took up weapons against India after the farce elections in Kashmir in 1987, God willing they will again forcefully resist India and finally bury them (the Indian troops)," Syed Shaheen Shah, one of the protesters, told AFP.

Some past polls in Indian Kashmir have been marred by low turnout and violent clashes with security forces.

A boycott by Muslim voters would play to the BJP's advantage, giving the vote of Kashmir's Hindu minority more importance.

The BJP has staged a major media campaign, with newspapers in English and Urdu running big ads urging 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 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.

The first phase of 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 amid fears of attacks from Maoists who have long been fighting authorities for land, jobs and other rights for poor tribal groups in a conflict that has cost thousands of lives.

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