India's PM Modi faces test as his home state votes

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Ahmedabad: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat began voting on Saturday, in a key electoral test of his popularity after a series of controversial economic reforms.

Voters, with their election cards in hand, started lining up at polling booths early in the morning in Gujarat where Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has held power for 22 years.

“Urging all those voting today to turnout in record numbers and vote. I particularly call upon youngsters to exercise their franchise,” Modi, who forged his political career in Gujarat, tweeted early Saturday.

Modi built his reputation as an economic reformer in Gujarat which boomed under his rule, attracting investments from around the globe.

But his recent reforms – a new national tax and a shock currency ban to fight graft – have hit India’s growth and hurt the very constituency of traders and small business owners who were his biggest supporters in the western state, polls found.

Experts say this election is a serious challenge to Modi as his rivals ride a wave of discontent caused by a stuttering economy and voter anger over the reforms and a desire for change could boost the flagging fortunes of the opposition Congress Party.

The Congress campaign has been spearheaded by Rahul Gandhi – the man likely to challenge Modi for premiership at the next general election in 2019.

The election is seen as a chance for Gandhi to finally prove his mettle before he is named president of the party his mother Sonia has led for more than two decades.

Modi’s personal popularity remains high, however, with three major opinion polls this week showing a win for the BJP – although by a margin smaller than in 2012, the last time the state went to polls.

The combined poll average predicted the BJP grabbing 105-106 seats in the 182-member state house – well over the 92 required for it to form government for a fifth consecutive time. 

It forecast Congress winning 73-74 seats.

India’s opinion polls are notoriously unreliable, having been way off mark in previous state and national elections.

Votes from the election will be counted on December 18, with results announced the same day.

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