NEW DELHI - India began on Monday the first of five state elections to be held in coming weeks, important tests for Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he plots a course that he hopes will ensure him victory in a general election due by May.
Voters in the central state of Chhattisgarh went to the polls on Monday to elect representatives for 18 of the state assembly's 90 seats in a staggered poll complicated by logistical problems and left-wing guerrillas.
The state of about 26 million people has been ruled by Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 2003, and he will be hoping to hold on to power.
"Some unholy people have handed guns to children who should have pens in their hands," Modi told a rally in the state on Friday, referring to the rag-tag guerrillas battling government forces from forest hideouts. "They've finished the lives of our tribal children."
Hundreds of election workers had to be flown in to remote polling stations by helicopter because of the danger posed by the rebels.
Modi called for voters to back his BJP and its vision of "development for all."
The final phase of voting in Chhattisgarh, which is known for its coal, iron ore and bauxite reserves, will be on Nov. 20.
The BJP was the preference of about 43 percent of voters in Chhattisgarh, 7 percentage points ahead of the main opposition Congress party, according to a survey released last week by the Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
Modi's other big tests will be in the neighboring central state of Madhya Pradesh, where the BJP is slightly ahead of Congress, according to polls, and in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, where Congress is expected to emerge victorious.
A good performance by the BJP in the elections would help it deflect growing criticism over unemployment and a crisis in the countryside over falling farm prices and wages.
Elections will also be held for assemblies in Telangana in the south and Mizoram in the northeast.
The BJP has sent top leaders to campaign in Chhattisgarh, including Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand Hindu priest and the BJP chief minister in Uttar Pradesh state.
Adityanath has been appealing to the BJP's Hindu-nationalist base and on Sunday accused the opposition of blocking construction of a temple for Hindu god Ram on a disputed site in Uttar Pradesh.
The destruction of a mosque on the site by a Hindu mob in 1992 sparked deadly riots across the country.