Ninety-one Lok Sabha seats across 11 states and three Union Territories went to polls on the first major day of the world's biggest vote on Thursday, with Delhi and Uttar Pradesh being the key battlegrounds. Voters turned out in higher numbers than the previous Lok Sabha elections, possibly reflecting this year's highly volatile election campaign.
The overall voting percentage was almost 63, up over 2% from the 60.8% in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
"High voter turn-out in today's polls is very encouraging. I congratulate and thank people. Hope the positive trend continues in later phases," the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi tweeted.
The high voltage campaign marked by hate speeches in the communally sensitive western Uttar Pradesh saw 14 percentage point increase in polling in Muzzafarnagar from 54% in 2009 to 68.27%.
Almost a fifth of Parliament's 543 seats were up for grabs on Thursday, the third of nine phases of voting in the elections that will end when results are declared on May 16.
While Sonia and Rahul Gandhi did not talk to the media, Priyanka Gandhi, who came to vote with husband Robert Vadra, said there is "no Modi wave in the country".
Modi is favourite to become prime minister, opinion polls have shown, but his BJP needs a big win in Uttar Pradesh, a state with a population comparable to Brazil that sends more lawmakers to Parliament than any other.
High voter turnout was recorded in the 91 constituencies, with Kerala witnessing the highest percentage of 76, up from 73.2% last time. Chandigarh stood second with a turnout of 74%, against 64% in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Haryana, meanwhile, saw nearly 73% of its over 1.6 crore voters exercising their franchise. A higher voter turnout mostly results in surprise election outcomes.
Chhattisgarh's Bastar seat witnessed the lowest voter turnout of 51.4%. The figure, however, was higher as compared to 47.33% recorded in the last LS polls.
Apart from 1.3 crore eligible voters coming out in heavy numbers in the national capital, Thursday's balloting covered all 20 Lok Sabha constituencies in Kerala, 10 each in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra and Odisha, nine in Madhya Pradesh, all seven seats in Delhi, six in Bihar, four in Jharkhand and one each in Chhattisgarh, Jammu, Chandigarh, Lakshwadeep as well as Andaman and Nicobar Island.
The turnout in Delhi was 64%, up by 12% as against the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Seen as a potential challenge to established political parties earlier this year, there were signs of disillusionment among some early voters after the Aam Aadmi Party's troubled time running the Delhi government. "We need stability. So I won't waste my vote on him (Arvind Kejriwal)," Jitender Singh, a 38-year-old rickshaw driver, told AFP. "For now it is Modi, Modi, Modi for me."
Singh was referring to the BJP's prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi. Many voters have been swayed by his promises of economic development, strong leadership and clean government after a decade of rule by the scandal-tainted Congress party.
Kedarnath Agarwal, a 79-year-old speaking as shopkeepers rolled up their shutters and the first voters trickled into a nearby polling station, said he would abandon Congress for the first time in 50 years.
"All my hopes are pinned on Modi. He is a real leader, strong, decisive and experienced -- that's what we need this time," he said.
On the possibility that the Lok Sabha polls in seven seats of Delhi could turn out to be a contest between the BJP and the AAP, Tewari said AAP had "run away" from governing in the state and "people will take cognisance of all this when they use their franchise".
The Election Commission maintained the turnout could be "much higher" in all the seats as final reports were yet to come in with voting still on after the stipulated hours in various areas.
In Uttar Pradesh state, a key state that sends 80 MPs to Parliament, voters in Muzaffarnagar, hit by last year's communal riots, went to the polls.
Muzaffarnagar and Shamli in UP recorded "above average" voter turnout of 67.78% and 70.85%, respectively, the poll panel said.
The overall turnout was an impressive 65% on the 10 UP seats that went to polls on Thursday. This figure was better than the 51.7% voting on these seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
Last year's communal unrest in UP is seen as having polarised the electorate in Uttar Pradesh along religious lines, with the BJP seen as benefiting from greater support from Hindus while secular-rooted parties promise to protect religious minorities. The BJP has fielded two candidates from the area who have been charged with inciting the attacks that killed 59 and drove 50,000 people out of their homes.
Elsewhere on Thursday, an attack by Maoist rebels on security forces guarding polling booths killed two paramilitary policemen in Bihar, the Election Commission said.
"Two of our paramilitary men lost their lives in the attack but despite their deaths the polling was completed in the area," Sudhir Tripathi, a deputy election commissioner, said at a news conference in Delhi. Around 53% of the electorate voted in six constituencies of Bihar on Thursday even as the two troopers headed for poll duty were killed.
Chhattisgarh and Odisha also witnessed Maoist-related violence. In Odisha, Maoists snatched electronic voting machines and took away the battery of another. On Wednesday, three policemen were killed by the Maoists in the insurgency-racked state of Chhattisgarh.
Odisha recorded 67% for 10 Lok Sabha and 70 assembly seats, Jharkhand 58.3% for four LS seats and Andaman and Nicobar Islands 55.9% for one LS seat.
A high voter turnout of over 60% was recorded in the Maoist-hit Gadchiroli Lok Sabha constituency in Maharashtra. A group of Maoists opened fire on a polling party at Jambia Gatta in south Gadchiroli while it was returning to the district headquarters.
There was an unprecedented 60% voting in nine seats in the first phase of voting in Madhya Pradesh. The two subsequent phases of voting would be conducted on April 17 and April 24 respectively. Last year's voting figure on the corresponding seats in the state was 54.6%.
In West Bengal, the election officers had to face ire of Trinamool workers for forcing the state government to abide by the Election Commission direction to transfer certain officers. State chief minister Mamata Banerjee had spewed venom against the poll watchdog and accused deputy election commissioner Vinod Zutshi of being involved in a scam. "We have called for tapes of the incident," an EC official said, after two officers were injured in the attack.
Back in Delhi, early voting took place peacefully and slowly after authorities declared a public holiday, with voters making their way to polling stations in bright spring sunshine.
Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, dressed in a green sari, and her son Rahul, who is leading campaigning for a national election for the first time, cast their votes on Thursday morning.
The first two rounds of voting took place on Monday and Wednesday in the remote northeast of the country, where only 12 constituencies went to the polls.
Full coverage: My India My Vote