NEW DELHI (AP) - Voters in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat cast ballots Thursday in crucial local elections, a vote that is seen as a barometer of his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's popularity ahead of a 2024 general election in India.
The polls are the first of two phases of voting in the western state that Modi ruled as chief minister for over a decade before he led his ruling Hindu nationalist party to victories in national elections in 2014 and 2019.
A second round of voting will take place Monday before votes are counted Dec. 8.
Modi's party remains popular despite criticism of inflation and unemployment and is expected to emerge victorious. Most pre-election surveys and several political analysts have predicted that it will win a majority of the 182 seats in the state for a record seventh time in a row, defeating the main opposition Congress party and new entrant Aam Aadmi Party.
The BJP has been in power in Gujarat, a state of more than 60 million, since 1995.
Modi and dozens of top leaders of his party have been campaigning in Gujarat and voters will go to the polls a month after the collapse of a suspension bridge in the town of Morbi killed 135 people. The disaster angered people across the state but analysts say it won't dent BJP's popularity in the polls.
India's main opposition Congress party is hoping to revive its fortunes and regain some popularity in the state. In October, the party elected a new president, a move that was seen to shed its image as a family dynasty. In September, Rahul Gandhi, its most prominent leader, launched a cross-country unity march across Indian cities, towns and villages to rejuvenate the party and win the people's support. But analysts say neither event will help the party electorally during the Gujarat polls.
Meanwhile, the BJP is facing a tough challenge from the Aam Aadmi Party, which has ruled the capital, Delhi, since 2015. Earlier this year, it swept polls in the northern Punjab state by overthrowing the Congress party.
Aam Aadmi Party, which grew out of a nationwide anti-corruption movement in 2012, has been a force to reckon with in Delhi. Since its surprise win in the Punjab state, the party has been trying to strengthen its presence across the country. A strong showing in Gujarat could indicate whether the party could appeal voters during the 2024 general election, mainly at the expense of the Indian National Congress party that has struggled since 2014.