Indian-administered Kashmir headed to the polls under tight security with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party eyeing power for the first time in the disputed Muslim-majority region.
More than one million residents are eligible to vote on Monday in the first stage of staggered elections in the Himalayan region, claimed by both India and Pakistan and the scene of two wars between the rival neighbours.
Voting started at 8:00am local time (0230 GMT) in 15 constituencies near the de facto border that divides Kashmir along with the remote Ladakh region, home to mostly Buddhists, where temperatures have dropped to below freezing.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is staging a bold attempt to seize control of the 87-member assembly, a move that would have been unthinkable until very recently.
The party has traditionally had no base in the Kashmir Valley where residents’ resentment against Indian rule runs high.
Support for Abdullah wanes
About a dozen rebel groups have been fighting Indian forces since 1989 for Kashmir’s independence or for its merger with Pakistan.
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Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have died in the violence.
But Modi’s landslide win at national elections in May and a meltdown in support for incumbent Chief Minister Omar Abdullah after deadly floods in September have given the BJP hope of a breakthrough.
Outside a heavily guarded polling booth in Ganderbal, a seat Abdullah’s family has long dominated, some voters at least 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.
Abdullah has decided against running this time in Ganderbal, about 30km north of the main city of Srinagar, where support for his ruling National Conference party is seen dropping.