Voting began in Assam and West Bengal on Saturday in state elections that will show how support for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is holding up following a coronavirus-stricken year, and months of protests by farmers against his agricultural reforms.
Re-elected for a second five-year term in 2019, Modi's grip on power is under no threat, but the elections in the two eastern states are the first since the farmers launched protests that have been mainly in the north, around the capital Delhi, reports Reuters.
It was the first phase of voting in both states, and the results won't be known for months.
For all the concerns over the coronavirus, politicians out on the campaign trail often showed scant regard for social distancing, but as people waited in long queues outside polling centres in West Bengal on Saturday, security personnel and election workers handed out masks, sanitizers and gloves.
Modi and his home minister Amit Shah campaigned aggressively for their Bharatiya Janata Party in West Bengal, luring local politicians away from the Trinamool Congress (TMC) party, whose firebrand leader Mamata Banerjee has been chief minister since 2011.
"The main contending parties are strong this time and it is difficult to gauge the mood," Mahadeb Hansda, a retired school teacher told Reuters by telephone from Purulia district, as he waited to cast his vote.
The BJP currently controls a dozen of India's 28 states, with alliance partners in several others. But it has never won power in West Bengal, once a communist bastion for more than three decades, and should the BJP defeat Banerjee, analysts say, it would deal a body blow to the broader opposition.
The country's fourth most populous state, with 90 million people, is key to controlling the upper house of the federal parliament whose members are elected by state assemblies.
In neighbouring Assam, where a BJP-led alliance is seeking a second term, brisk polling began early. Women, clad in traditional dresses, lined up outside voting centres before the polls opened at 7 am.
"I want to cast my vote early and be free for the rest of the day," said Malini Gogoi, a housewife from the northern Assam town of Biswanath.
Two security personnel injured
Hours before the first phase of polling began in West Bengal Assembly elections, the Purba Medinipur district witnessed violence as bombing and firing took place in the Satsatmal village at the Argoal gram panchayat in Bhagabanpur Assembly constituency, injuring two security personnel.
Patashpur Police Station Officer-in-Charge (OC) Deepak Kumar Chakraborty and a Central Force soldier were seriously injured in the incident, reports Hindustan Times.
West Bengal Assembly elections
Voting for the first phase of the Bengal and Assam elections began this morning - for 30 and 47 seats respectively. In Bengal the Trinamool faces a stern test from the BJP (and a lesser one from the Congress-Left alliance) in its bid for a third straight term.
In Assam the BJP is hoping to win a second straight term, with Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal the biggest name on the ballot today. In 2016 the Trinamool swept 26 of the 30 seats on offer today.
In Assam the BJP won 35 of 47 seats. Polling booths opened at 7 am and will close at 6 pm; polling has been extended by an hour due to the Covid pandemic.
In Assam, a voter turnout of 45.2 per cent was recorded till 1.30 pm. In Bengal the turnout was 54.9 per cent. Results will be declared May 2, reports NDTV.