Key provincial elections kick off in India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi leaves after addressing Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) party workers meet ‘Karyakarta Mahakumbh’ in Bhopal, India, Sep. 25, 2018. EPA-EFE FILE/SANJEEV GUPTA

New Delhi, Nov 12 (efe-epa).- The first of multi-phase provincial elections to be held in five Indian states, home to over 130 million registered voters, began on Monday.

The polls are seen as a key gauge of popular support for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party ahead of the 2019 general elections.

In the first phase, voting was held in Chhattisgarh for 18 of the 90 seats of the state assembly while elections for the rest of the constituencies in the eastern state will be held on Nov. 20.

The states of Mizoram (northeast), Madhya Pradesh (central), Rajasthan (west) and Telangana (south) are also set to elect new state assemblies in the elections that will end on Dec. 7. Results for all the five states will be announced on Dec. 11.

In Chhattisgarh, the authorities have deployed heavy security as the province has a strong presence of Maoist insurgents, who killed four civilians and a police officer in an explosion last week.

The rebels want to establish a Maoist agrarian revolution in India and continue to be active even after half a century of counter-insurgency operations, particularly in the “red belt” — a mineral and resources-rich strip that runs through central and eastern India.

In a Chhattisgarh election meeting last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated his government’s commitment to the region.

He accused the opposition Indian National Congress, which is vying for power in the state, of trying to protect “urban Maoists” – a loose term used to describe alleged urban supporters, mostly activists, of the Leftist guerrillas.

The prime minister vowed to free the state of Maoist violence if his party, the BJP, wins a fourth term in Chhattisgarh.

These are the last regional polls to be held in the country before the general elections, scheduled for May 2019.

The state elections are expected to be a key test of popularity of Modi and the federal government led by the BJP.