Millions of Indians voted Wednesday (28) in a state election seen as a key duel between prime minister Narendra Modi and his main rival before the whole country goes to the polls in 2019.
Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has governed the central state of Madhya Pradesh, home to 73 million people since 2003 having won three state elections in a row.
But polls suggest that the opposition Congress headed by Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, could win on the back of concerns about rising unemployment and by appealing to disgruntled farmers.
The party, which lost power in Madhya Pradesh in 2003 – and nationally to Modi in 2014 – has campaigned aggressively against three-time chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan on issues of corruption and misgovernance.
Chouhan, who lead the BJP to a thumping majority in the 2013 elections, has nevertheless sounded confident. Modi himself has addressed no fewer than 10 rallies in the state in a hard-fought campaign.
“This is not the toughest election of my career, it’s very comfortable,” Chouhan told reporters after casting his vote.
The vote is one of five state elections this month and next that is a litmus test of Modi’s popularity ahead of general elections that have to take place before May but for which no date has been announced yet.
Nearly 800,000 voters were also entitled to vote on Wednesday in the remote northeast state of Mizoram, which is governed by Congress. Results from all the state elections are due on December 11.
The BJP is trying hard to maintain its winning momentum after defeating Congress in at least a dozen states since the 2014 national election victory and has campaigned hard in Madhya Pradesh.
An electoral defeat in the state would be a major setback for the party and dent the winning image of Modi, 68.
The state, one of India’s poorest and which is highly dependent on agriculture, is also crucial for his rival Gandhi.
The 48-year-old is projected as party’s prime ministerial candidate but has so far failed to deliver any impressive electoral wins.