For months now, the Election Commission (EC) has been meticulously planning, political parties have been energetically campaigning, leaders have been busy devising strategies, candidates have been proactively reaching out, and voters have been listening to all sides. It all culminates in this one moment. India begins voting for the 17th Lok Sabha today. Logistical requirements and security sensitivities have, of course, meant that the elections will be a prolonged affair, and will continue for five more weeks, before results are finally declared on May 23. But the first phase of the poll carries

its own significance because it sets the momentum.

Across 20 states, voters in 91 constituencies will elect their representatives on Thursday. Besides others, all seats in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana; a substantial number of seats in the Northeast; and, of course, constituencies in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal — states in which the elections span across all seven phases — will witness voting. There are many high-profile political figures in the fray. From Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ministers like Nitin Gadkari, VK Singh, Mahesh Sharma, Kiren Rijiju to significant opposition figures like Rashtriya Lok Dal’s Ajit Singh and Jayant Chaudhary, former Uttarakhand chief minister, Harish Rawat, Telangana Rashtriya Samithi’s K Kavitha, the fortunes of many leaders will be determined by how India votes today.

But a more important framework to understand the first phase of polling is to look at the issues which have dominated the campaign so far. The BJP’s campaign message includes a mix of strong leadership as epitomised by Narendra Modi; national security as reflected in the Balakot air strikes; and rural welfare in terms of asset creation. The Congress believes a robust critique of the Modi government on its economic record in terms of unemployment and farmer incomes, coupled with its own promise of NYAY, a scheme to give 20% of the poorest Indian households Rs 6000 every month, can catalyse a revival in its electoral prospects. For regional parties, the message has revolved around state-specific welfare schemes; projection of their own leaders as potential players on the national stage; and a call to their voters that only regional parties, rather than Delhi-centric parties and leaders, can address their aspirations. Other than the macro messaging, the campaign has also been characterised by a sharp focus on identity politics and the construction of social alliances. As voters exercise their choice, the first phase of the polls will be a test for the parties about which of the messages resonates the most, in which regions, and which social alliances will prevail.

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