India started the world's largest election Monday, with voters in the remote northeast making their way past lush rice paddies and over rickety bamboo bridges to reach the polls. Most parties were campaigning on promises of economic growth.
The country's 814 million electorate will vote in stages over the next five weeks _ a staggered approach made necessary by India's vast size _ to choose representatives to its 543-seat lower house of parliament.
The main Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party led by prime ministerial hopeful Narendra Modi is seen as the biggest threat to the now-governing Congress Party and its allies.
Results from all 935,000 polling stations are expected on May 16.
Polls suggest Congress could face a drubbing thanks to corruption scandals and recent years of economic slowdown. The BJP, which has pledged economic renewal, is expected to do well but to fall short of a 272-seat majority. Its chief, Modi, has been credited for ushering in strong industrial growth in the western state of Gujarat, where he has been chief minister for 11 years.
However, critics question whether the Hindu nationalist chief can be a truly secular leader, noting he has failed to take responsibility or apologize for communal rioting that left more than 1,000 dead in his state in 2002. He's accused of doing little to stop the anti-Muslim rampage, though he denies any wrongdoing and has never been charged with a crime.
The BJP was the last major party on Monday to release its campaign manifesto, which envisions India's path toward full development through futuristic infrastructure projects such as high-speed trains, 100 new modern cities and wireless Internet facilities in public places.
But such ambitious plans hold little appeal for most voters in rural Assam, where voting took place Monday in five constituencies as well as in one in neighboring Tripura state.
Here, people are more concerned about basic needs like guarding against the dangers of flooding, soil erosion and heavy rains washing away homes, or building more roads and bridges to connect far-away towns and villages to the main cities.
"I've made it a point to vote this time because we want change,'' said 36-year-old housewife Rumi Nath, waiting to vote in the rural town of Lakhimpur on the Brahmaputra River. "Our area remains backward and underdeveloped 67 years after independence.''
Several of the 8,000 polling stations were temporarily closed while officials fixed or replaced faulting voting machines.
Basic survival was