Election officials sit next to election materials to be distributed to polling stations at a distribution center, ahead of the third phase of general elections in Kochi, India, April 22, 2019.
Election officials sit next to election materials to be distributed to polling stations at a distribution center, ahead of the third phase of general elections in Kochi, India, April 22, 2019.

Voting began in the third and largest phase of India's staggered general election on Tuesday, including in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat and southern Kerala, where opposition Congress party chief Rahul Gandhi is contesting.

In all, 188 million voters are eligible to cast ballots in 117 constituencies during the day - across 15 states and federally-controlled territories.

The general election, which has seven phases, began on April 11 and will end on May 19. Votes will be counted on May 23.

Indian election officials with polling materials w
Indian election officials with polling materials walk to board a country boat to reach a polling center in a remote river island in the River Brahmaputra in Kamrup district, west of Gauhati, Assam, India, April 22, 2019.

"This is, sort of, an inflection point," said Rahul Verma, a fellow at the New Delhi-based think-tank Center for Policy Research, with more than half of India's parliamentary constituencies having voted by the end of the third phase. The country's parliament has 545 members.

So far, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has aggressively pushed Modi's national security record as it seeks to offset the opposition's charges of economic mishandling, inadequate jobs creation and widespread farm distress.

"I think job creation, sustainable development, and communal harmony should be the top priorities for the upcoming government," said Ubaidullah Mohyideen, 26, who voted on Tuesday in Kerala's Wayanad, one of the two seats that Gandhi is contesting.

Officials on election duty carry electronic voting
Officials on election duty carry electronic voting machines ahead of the general election in Ahmadabad, India, April 22, 2019.

At an election rally in western Maharashtra state on Monday, Modi mentioned the attacks on Sri Lankan hotels and churches on Easter Sunday that killed 290 people before saying India's security had been enhanced after his government came to power in 2014.

"Friends, remember what India's situation was before 2014," Modi said. "Weren't there bombs going off in different corners of the country every other day?"

Verma said Modi's repeated reference to the Sri Lankan attacks were a sign that the BJP would double down on the security issue for the remainder of the election campaign, which the prime minister began as a front-runner amid escalated tensions with neighboring Pakistan.

"I feel BJP is hell-bent on running this campaign on national security," Verma said. "Basically if they bring up any other thing, they would be on a difficult terrain, like on economic issues or on their performance."

In late February, Modi sent warplanes to Pakistan to bomb a purported training camp in response to a suicide attack in India-controlled Kashmir that killed 40 Indian paratroopers. The attack was claimed by an Islamist militant group based in Pakistan.