In this Monday, April 8, 2019, photo, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi releases Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP's manifesto for the upcoming general elections in New Delhi, India. Modi came to power in 2014 promising big-ticket economic reforms. But with unemployment rising and signature policies getting panned, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has adopted a nationalist pitch ahead of a general election that begins this week.(AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
Confrontation with Pakistan has directed attention away from Narendra Modi's economic record © AP

India’s 900m eligible voters have begun to cast their ballots in a mammoth general election that will determine whether Narendra Modi, a charismatic but controversial populist, secures a second term in office as prime minister, after a turbulent five-year tenure.

The poll comes in the aftermath of India’s most serious military confrontation with its nuclear-armed neighbour Pakistan in decades, which has deflected public attention away from persistent economic concerns, including the lack of jobs. 

At a rally this week, Mr Modi suggested that a vote for his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party was expressing support for the Indian air force pilots who carried out a February 26 missile strike on an alleged terrorist training camp in Pakistan. 

He was also scathing about the opposition Congress party, claiming it “speaks the same language” as Pakistan, which New Delhi blames for the February 14 suicide bombing at Pulwama that killed 40 Indian paramilitary police. 

“I want to ask first-time voters: can your first vote be dedicated to the valiant soldiers who carried out the air strike in Pakistan,” he said. “Can your first vote be dedicated to the brave martyrs of Pulwama?” 

Mr Modi’s invocation of the armed forces has angered opposition parties, who accuse the premier of violating Election Commission guidelines — issued at the armed forces’ request — that the military not be politicised, nor cited in election propaganda. 

“He is asking for votes in the name of martyrs and soldiers as if the armed forces belong to him,” complained Mamata Banerjee, a powerful regional politician whose Trinamool Congress is fighting the BJP in the key battleground state of West Bengal. “Armed forces belong to everybody. They are our pride.” 

The EC, charged with ensuring fair play, has itself come under fire, accused of failing to check the ruling party’s alleged violations of campaign etiquette. An Indian Express newspaper editorial on Wednesday bemoaned the commission’s “unwillingness, or inability, or both, to push back at a time when the political executive is strong and overweening”. 

However, the EC on Wednesday did ban the release of a big-budget adulatory Bollywood biopic called PM Narendra Modi, which depicts his rise from his humble origins as the son of a railway-station tea-seller to a strongman who vows to avenge Pakistani attacks.

The commission said the film, due to be released in cinemas across India on Thursday, had “the potential to disturb the level playing field” for the election, and should not be screened until after polling is over.

Meanwhile, income tax officials this week raided 52 locations linked to senior Congress politician Kamal Nath, who called the searches “politically motivated”. 

The raids on Mr Nath, chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, follow 15 income tax raids on opposition figures over the past six months. This week, the EC was reported in local media to have reminded Indian law enforcement agencies to be “neutral, impartial and non-discriminatory” in this sensitive period. 

Mr Modi is the strongest prime minister since the late Indira Gandhi, and a highly divisive and polarising figure. He was elected in May 2014 promising to bring “Acche Din”, — Good Days — to Indians yearning for prosperity. 

But his tenure has been marked by a draconian November 2016 withdrawal of most banknotes, a long-awaited but poorly implemented overhaul of the national tax system, and stand-offs with two respected central bank governors.

Growth appears to be faltering, with GDP expanding just 6.6 per cent, its slowest pace in five quarters, in the quarter ending December 31. In the first three months of 2019, domestic motorbike sales dropped 11 per cent year on year. Sales of passenger cars rose just 2.7 per cent, its slowest pace in four years, in the financial year ending March 31. 

Yet polls suggest Mr Modi’s BJP and its political allies are likely to secure a near majority, riding on the prime minister’s popularity among voters, who see him as a strong, hard-working and committed leader, deserving of more time to build India.

Voting will be held on six more polling days, each in a different part of the country, between now and May 19, with the vote count due to begin on May 23.

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