Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is making a bold attempt to win power in a state election under way in Muslim-majority Kashmir and bring it closer to the Indian mainstream, a long-running goal of the right-wing party.
But the BJP’s “Mission Kashmir” has already raised tension, with political rivals and separatists accusing the party of fomenting divisions in the region, which includes Hindu-dominated Jammu and Buddhist Ladakh.
Militants have also stepped up violence coinciding with the election, killing 11 soldiers and policemen in an attack on an Indian army camp on Friday, the worst losses for security forces in six years, and inflaming sentiment across India.
Strong voter turnout in early poll rounds showed people had rejected the path of violence and wanted development, Modi told a huge campaign rally in Jammu.
“The power that you have is greater than those holding the AK-47 [assault rifle],” he said. “He can only kill, while you can change the fortunes of a country with your vote.”
Tens of thousands of people applauded Modi as he promised the fruits of development if his party won the mandate to rule the state, weary of years of strife.
“People want jobs for the youth, water for the farms, medicines for the elders,” he said. “Even those who have strayed and taken up the gun are feeling burdened by it.”
Modi’s harder test will be in Srinagar, the state’s capital, which is at the heart of the 25-year revolt against Indian rule.
About 3,000 paramilitary troops and sniffer dogs guarded a cricket stadium where he is due to speak. Militants have in the past tried to stage attacks during visits by Indian leaders.
“The security grid is in place,” an army official, Lieutenant-General Subrata Saha, told reporters. “It won’t be appropriate for me to say anything more than that.”
The BJP has long advocated an end to Kashmir’s special status under the Indian constitution. The region is key to its vision of a strong, united India.
Pakistan says the election is meaningless and instead calls for talks to resolve a dispute that has poisoned ties between the neighbors ever since independence from Britain in 1947.