Polls have opened in the first phase of India’s general elections.

Voters in 18 Indian states and two Union Territories began casting ballots on Thursday, the first day of a seven-phase election staggered over six weeks in the country of 1.3 billion people.

The election, the world’s largest democratic exercise, is seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. Modi supporters say the tea-seller’s son from Gujarat state has improved the nation’s standing. But critics say his party’s Hindu nationalism has aggravated religious tensions in India.

Indian polling officials and police with electronic voting machines and voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) sit inside a vehicle before heading to a polling station on the eve of the first phase of general election in Majuli, Assam, India, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Indian polling officials and police with electronic voting machines and voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) sit inside a vehicle before heading to a polling station on the eve of the first phase of general election in Majuli, Assam, India, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

Some 900 million people are registered to vote for 543 seats in India’s lower house of Parliament.

Voting concludes on May 19 and counting is scheduled for May 23.

Indian election officials and paramilitary soldiers with election materials travel on a country boat to cross the river Brahmaputra on the eve of first phase of general election in Majuli, Assam, India, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Indian election officials and paramilitary soldiers with election materials travel on a country boat to cross the river Brahmaputra on the eve of first phase of general election in Majuli, Assam, India, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Indian election officials and paramilitary soldiers with election materials travel on a country boat to cross the river Brahmaputra on the eve of first phase of general election in Majuli, Assam, India, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Indian election officials and paramilitary soldiers with election materials travel on a country boat to cross the river Brahmaputra on the eve of first phase of general election in Majuli, Assam, India, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Indian police officials entry their names before leave for their polling stations on the eve of first phase of general election in Majuli, Assam, India, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Indian police officials entry their names before leave for their polling stations on the eve of first phase of general election in Majuli, Assam, India, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Indian polling officials carry electronic voting machines and voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) from a strong room to distribute on the eve of the first phase of the general election in Majuli, Assam, India, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Indian polling officials carry electronic voting machines and voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) from a strong room to distribute on the eve of the first phase of the general election in Majuli, Assam, India, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Indian polling officials check their electronic voting machines and voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) before leave for a polling station on the eve of first phase of general election in Majuli, Assam, India, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Indian polling officials check their electronic voting machines and voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) before leave for a polling station on the eve of first phase of general election in Majuli, Assam, India, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Indian polling officials carry electronic voting machines and voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) from a strong room to distribute on the eve of first phase of general election in Majuli, Assam, India, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Indian polling officials carry electronic voting machines and voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) from a strong room to distribute on the eve of first phase of general election in Majuli, Assam, India, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Indian polling officials check their electronic voting machines and voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) before leave for a polling station on the eve of first phase of general election in Majuli, Assam, India, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
Indian polling officials check their electronic voting machines and voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) before leave for a polling station on the eve of first phase of general election in Majuli, Assam, India, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

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