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Indian PM votes in general election, trumpets national security
[NEW DELHI] Millions of Indians voted in the third and largest phase of a staggered general election on Tuesday, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi who cast his ballot in his home state of Gujarat and again underlined his focus on combating terrorism.
In all, 188 million Indians are eligible to vote in 117 constituencies on Tuesday, across 15 states and federally controlled territories. India's parliament has 545 members.
More than half of those eligible had voted as of 4.30 pm, the election commission said.
In Gujarat, Mr Modi met his mother early in the morning and then rode in an open jeep past hundreds of onlookers to cast his vote shortly after 8 am.
"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 voter identification cards.
"I believe the voter ID is much more powerful than an IED."
The general election, which has seven phases, began on April 11 and will end on May 19. Votes will be counted on May 23.
"This is, sort of, an inflection point," said Rahul Verma, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think-tank. More than half of constituencies will have voted by the end of the third phase.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has aggressively pushed Modi's national security record as it seeks to deflect opposition accusations of economic mismanagement, inadequate job 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, voting in southern Kerala state's Wayanad district, one of the two seats that opposition Congress party chief Rahul Gandhi is contesting.
Violence flared in the eastern state of West Bengal and one Congress worker was killed and at least three people were injured, a state deputy chief election officer, Sanjay Bose, said.
A Congress spokesman said the worker had been killed in a clash with supporters of a regional party called the Trinamool Congress, which denied that assertion. The election commission said it was investigating.
In Kerala, leaders of three political parties complained about electronic voting machine (EVM) malfunctions, but an election commission official said glitches were not widespread and there were enough replacement machines.
On Monday, Mr Modi addressed a rally in western Maharashtra state and mentioned the attacks on Sri Lankan hotels and churches on Easter Sunday that killed 321 people and wounded about 500. 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," Mr Modi said. "Weren't there bombs going off in different corners of the country every other day?"
Mr Verma said Modi's references to the Sri Lankan attacks were a sign that the BJP would double down on the security issue for the remainder of the campaign, which the prime minister began as a front-runner amid escalated tension with neighbouring Pakistan.
"I feel the BJP is hell-bent on running this campaign on national security," Mr Verma said. "Basically, if they bring up any other thing, they would be on difficult terrain, like on economic issues or on their performance."
Mr Modi sent warplanes to Pakistan to bomb a purported militant training camp in February in response to a suicide bomb attack in Indian-controlled Kashmir that killed 40 Indian paratroopers. The blast was claimed by an Islamist militant group based in Pakistan.
Jayendra Singh, 44, a businessman in the Gujarat state's capital, Gandhinagar, also voted early and said the economy, women's safety and unemployment were major issues for him.
However, he disapproved of Mr 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," Mr Singh said.