India goes to the polls in the world's biggest general election

Votes are being cast in 21 states on Friday, and the process will take place over the course of the next six weeks, ITV News Foreign Correspondent Emma Murphy reports

Voting in the world's largest general election starts today in India, where almost one billion people will cast their votes for the next prime minister.

Votes are being cast in 21 states on Friday, and the process will take place over the course of the next six weeks, with the result announced on June 4.

Nearly 970 million people - more than 10% of the global population - will elect 543 members to the lower house of parliament.

Incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are widely expected to take on a third five-year stint in office.

Voters started to queue up at polling stations before they were allowed in at 7 am, from the Himalayan mountains to the Andaman Islands.

People are expected to travel to their local polling stations by whatever means they can, whether that's by car, bus, taxis, motorbike, boat, camel, buffalo or on foot.

Once people have cast their vote their forefinger is daubed in indelible ink ink to prevent duplicate voting or fraud.

Around a quarter of the population cannot read so each party has its own symbol which appears on the ballot papers.

The BJP for example has a lotus flower, while the Congress Party's symbol is a raised open palm. The logos of other parties include a broom and a mango.

Voters in hot and humid Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu state, quickly filled the city's nearly 4,000 polling booths.

A polling official puts indelible ink on a woman's finger during the first round of voting of India’s national election in Chennai. Credit: AP

Many said they were voting for a change in federal government given rising prices, unemployment and religious polarisation stoked by the BJP.

“First thing I came to vote for is to have a country without any religious disharmony. In Tamil Nadu, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, we're all together. And this unity should grow," Mary Das, 65, said while she was waiting to vote.

The BJP has long struggled to capture votes in the state, where two powerful regional parties - the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam - typically dominate.

The BJP had no success in 2019, and won just one seat in 2014.

Hindu holymen queue up to cast their votes in the northern city of Haridwar. Credit: AP

Voting is also taking place in the northeastern state of Manipur, where a year of near-civil war has triggered ethnic violence. Mobs have rampaged through villages and torched houses and more than 150 people have been killed.

This election is seen as one of the most consequential in India’s history and will test the limits of 73-year-old Modi's political dominance.

If he wins, he’ll be only the second Indian leader to retain power for a third term, after Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister.

Under Narendra Modi, India has become the world's fastest growing major economy but even as India's growth has soared by some measures, the Modi government has struggled to create enough jobs for young Indians, and instead has relied on welfare programmes such as free food and housing to attract voters.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters wear masks of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an election rally. Credit: AP

Modi has ramped up the Hindu nationalist rhetoric on the campaign trail, and has sought to present himself as a global leader.

His ministers tout him as the steward of a surging India, while his supporters celebrate his campaign promise to make India a developed nation by 2047, when it marks 100 years of independence.

The opposition, and critics, also warn that Modi has turned increasingly illiberal.

They accuse Modi of using tax authorities and the police to harass the opposition, and fear that a third term could undermine India's democracy.

People stand in queue to cast their votes during the first round of polling of India's national election in Bahona village, Jorhat. Credit: AP

His Hindu nationalist politics, they argue, has bred intolerance and threatens the country's secular roots.

The main challenger to the BJP and Modi is the Indian National Congress, which had governed the country for many of the 77 years since the country's independence.

After support for the party weakened, it formed a coalition with other opposition parties to form the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA).

The coalition has fielded a single primary candidate in most constituencies, but has been troubled by ideological differences and personality clashes and its more than 20 parties have not yet put forward a candidate.

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