Ahmedabad, Dec 13 (IANS) Millions voted across Gujarat Thursday in elections that have pitted Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who has ruled the state since 2001, against a disparate opposition.
An estimated 53 percent of the 18 million eligible to vote in the first phase of polling had exercised their franchise by 3 p.m. in 87 of the 182 assembly constituencies, officials said.
Both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress have said they will win but the election is widely seen as a virtual referendum on Modi's 11 years of controversial rule.
The third major player is the Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) of former chief minister Keshubhai Patel, who parted ways with the BJP after giving up the chief minister's chair in October 2001.
The BJP has fielded candidates in all 87 seats, the Congress in 84, GPP IN 83 and the Bahujan Samaj Party in 79.
Queues began forming outside many polling booths even as balloting started at 8 a.m. Within three hours, 18 percent had voted. The numbers kept rising amid pleasant weather.
Fifty-four of the 87 constituencies voting Thursday lie in Saurashtra, Keshubhai Patel's known stronghold. But BJP strategists say the Keshubhai factor will not affect them majorly.
There are a total of 846 candidates in the fray, including 46 women.
Ahmed Patel, political secretary to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, said while casting his ballot that the heavy polling "shows how much dissatisfaction is there among the people (against Modi)".
Amid media glare, Keshubhai Patel voted in Rajkot. Gujarat Congress chief Arjun Modhwadia voted in Porbandar.
After casting his ballot, BJP state leader R.C. Faldu thundered: "We will win with a big majority."
Election Commission officials said polling proceeded peacefully in 44,579 balloting centres. As many as 17,029 of these were dubbed "critical" -- official euphemism to mean they are prone to violence.
Of an estimated 38 million voters, 19.9 million are male and 18.1 million are female.
The largest constituency by area is Abdasa (6,278 sq km) and the largest constituency by population is Kamrej (304,621 voters).
At Maninagar in Ahmedabad, Modi is pitted against suspended officer Sanjiv Bhatt's wife Shweta.
In 1998, 59.30 percent voted in the assembly elections. This rose to 61.54 percent in 2002 and slid to 59.77 percent in 2007.
A possible victory for the BJP will be widely seen as a personal triumph for Modi, who towers over the party in Gujarat.
And with the next Lok Sabha election due in 2014, it could propel him to play a larger national role for the BJP.
If the BJP loses, the claims of Modi's political invincibility by his admirers would be punctured.